The Mail on Sunday allegedly “distorted” a statement from former health secretary Matt Hancock in articles about cholesterol-lowering medications, the High Court has heard at the start of a libel claim brought by a doctor and a researcher.
Dr Malcolm Kendrick and Zoe Harcombe are suing The Mail on Sunday’s publisher Associated Newspapers Limited (ANL) and its health editor Barney Calman over a series of articles they claim described them as “statin deniers” who had caused “grave harm”.
ANL and Calman are defending the libel claim, with lawyers for the publisher telling the court in written submissions that “allegations of impropriety” about the statement from Hancock “are unsupported by any proper evidence”.
At the start of a seven-day hearing on Monday, lawyers for Harcombe and Kendrick said the three articles published in the paper in 2019, as well as similar articles on Mail Online, accused them of spreading “fake news” about the medication.
Mail on Sunday statins articles ‘can’t be defended with qualified privilege’
Adrienne Page KC, for the pair, said in written submissions: “The overall defamatory message of each publication is, it is submitted, that both claimants have made public claims about statins dishonestly… that they have done so with an improper, venal motive and that their conduct in this regard has had seriously adverse consequences for individuals and public health in the UK.”
Statins are a type of medication prescribed for high cholesterol with the aim of reducing the likelihood of conditions such as heart attack and stroke.
Page added the evidence was “non-existent” for the allegation that the pair had caused anyone to die, suffer physical harm or be put at risk for either.
The barrister later said a statement from Hancock had been presented “in a distorted and misleading way” and was not in the public interest.
She also said it could not be defended using “qualified privilege” – a defence to defamation claims that applies to government and police statements.
Page added: “All the references to the Hancock statement in the articles are distorted and misleading, specifically in the way that it is made to look in the articles as if Mr Hancock was speaking with reference to the claimants in what he was saying when he was not.”
‘Public interest journalism’ contributing to statins debate
Catrin Evans KC, for ANL and Calman, said the publisher was defending the libel claim.
She said in written submissions: “This was public interest journalism contributing to the ongoing public debate about the efficacy and side-effects of a mass prescription drug and what conclusions should properly be drawn from the evidence base.”
The barrister described the subject of the articles as “an ongoing public challenge to established expert opinion on a major public health issue, which was serious enough to engage government and NHS interest”.
“The evidence shows that this was a serious, diligent and fair investigation into a very strong public interest matter,” Evans continued.
The barrister later said that Harcombe and Kendrick were both “playing a role in public life and public debate and exerting significant influence on their audience, many of whom would be users or potential users of statins”.
She continued: “It is accepted by the defendants that the articles were trenchant in their criticism of the claimants and polemical in so much as they took a clear position on the establishment side of the debate.
“But this was well within the margin of editorial judgment, especially on such an important public health subject.”
The seven-day hearing marks the first trial in the claim, with a second trial to consider issues including any truth defence and potential serious harm planned.
The hearing before Mr Justice Nicklin is due to conclude on 11 July with a decision expected in writing at a later date.
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