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  1. Media Law
November 1, 2023

High Court ruling on meaning clears way for Noel Clarke libel trial versus Guardian

High Court judge rules on what hypothetical reasonable reader would take from Noel Clarke investigation.

By Charlotte Tobitt

A High Court judge has ruled The Guardian‘s reporting of sexual misconduct claims against actor Noel Clarke carried a number of defamatory meanings.

Mr Justice Johnson said in a judgment published on Wednesday that each of the articles cited in the libel claim were defamatory of Clarke at common law, and that they were facts rather than expressions of opinion.

The hearing, held last week, was to determine the meaning that a hypothetical reasonable reader would understand from the eight articles mentioned in Clarke’s claim.

Both Clarke and Guardian News and Media agreed that the words complained of were defamatory of him, with the exception of the final article about the Metropolitan Police decision not to investigate Clarke and subsequent “dismay” from women’s groups which GNM said was not. But they disagreed on the exact interpretations of the articles which should be taken forward to a libel trial.

Clarke’s lawyers said the articles implied he was guilty of the offences alleged, whereas The Guardian argued the articles were reporting allegations.

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Mr Justice Johnson decided that the first article revealing the allegations against Clarke carried the meaning: “There are strong grounds to believe that the claimant is a serial abuser of women, that he has, over 15 years, used his power to prey on and harass and sometimes bully female colleagues, that he has engaged in unwanted sexual contact, kissing, touching or groping, sexually inappropriate behaviour and comments, and professional misconduct, taking and sharing explicit pictures and videos without consent, including secretly filming a young actor’s naked audition.”

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The meanings decided for the subsequent articles are as follows:

  • “There are strong grounds to believe that the claimant has engaged in sexual harassment and bullying of women.”
  • “There are strong grounds to believe that the claimant has engaged in verbal abuse, bullying and sexual harassment.”
  • “There are strong grounds to believe that the claimant has subjected women to sexual harassment and bullying, and that he wrongly encouraged students to remove their clothes during improvisation workshops.”
  • “There are strong grounds to believe that the claimant has engaged in sexual harassment, unwanted touching or groping, sexually inappropriate behaviour and comments on set, professional misconduct, taking and sharing sexually explicit pictures and videos without consent, and bullying between 2004 and 2019.”
  • “There are strong grounds to believe that the claimant was involved in sexual harassment and bullying of women, including inappropriate touching, whilst he was working as an actor.”
  • “There are strong grounds to believe that the claimant abused his position as a star actor by sexually harassing and bullying women who worked with him.”
  • “There are grounds to investigate allegations against the claimant of groping, harassment and bullying.”

Mr Justice Johnson found that in each of the first seven articles, the allegations made against Clarke were “advanced in clear terms” and certain features of the articles gave “credibility to the allegations that are made, most notably the sheer number of women who are said to have made similar complaints”.

The judge did, however, note that the articles made it “clear” that Clarke denied the allegations, often in a detailed manner: “The reports of the denials are not tucked away in small print at the end of the article. They are given prominence. In the first article, the denial comes immediately after the headline.”

Journalist ‘adopted and endorsed’ allegations in podcast

In an episode of The Guardian’s Today in Focus, embedded in one of the articles under complaint, Mr Justice Johnson said Lucy Osborne, one of the journalists who conducted the investigation into Clarke alongside Sirin Kale, appeared to “adopt and endorse the allegations that are made”.

But he added that this was immediately followed by the presenter saying: “We should say that Clarke has denied in the strongest possible terms that he has ever sexually harassed or bullied [the person whose allegations were being discussed] or treated her in the way she alleges.” The presenter later referred to the motive Clarke had suggested might underpin the making of false allegations.

Mr Justice Johnson also said he did not agree that Clarke’s denials were “reported in a way that suggests that no credence can be attached to them”.

He added: “Only a reader ‘avid for scandal’ would accept the allegations at face value and entirely disregard the denials. A reasonable reader would take account of the denials.

“On the other hand, I do not consider that the overall impact of any of the first seven articles is simply to convey that there is suspicion of the claimant’s guilt… Each of the articles refers to the fact that 20 women (26 individuals by the time of the fourth article) had made allegations against the claimant. That, together with the overall content and presentation of each of the articles, suggests more than merely grounds for suspicion, notwithstanding the denials.

“I consider that each of the first seven articles (in both the print and online versions) give the impression to the hypothetical reasonable reader that there are strong grounds to believe that the claimant is guilty of the conduct alleged.”

Noel Clarke has not ‘won’ libel case

The judgment does not mean Clarke has won, or will succeed, in his case. As Mr Justice Johnson put it, such preliminary hearings “do not involve a determination of who should succeed in the substantive claim, far less whether a claimant is guilty of the conduct alleged by a defendant in the publication that forms the basis of the claim.

“It follows that nothing in this judgment should be taken as a finding as to the truth or otherwise of the allegations that underpin the articles published by the defendant.”

Guardian News and Media will now prepare to file its defence ahead of a trial.

A Guardian spokesperson said: “We welcome this judgment on meaning. The Guardian’s investigation was deeply reported and researched, and we intend to defend our journalism robustly.”

Clarke said in a statement: “I have always disputed the content of the eight Guardian articles and I am satisfied that the High Court has now found that all eight articles issued by the defendant were defamatory in law.

“I look forward to now receiving the Guardian’s defence and progressing my claim for defamation in the High Court next year.”

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