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  1. Media Law
June 26, 2024

Public interest defence not allowed for Mail on Sunday ‘statin deniers’ articles

Qualified privilege defence not allowed for reports of Hancock's statement which were "not fair or accurate".

By PA Media

A statement from former health secretary Matt Hancock in a Mail on Sunday article about cholesterol-lowering medications was used in a “seriously misleading” way, the High Court has ruled.

Dr Malcolm Kendrick and Zoe Harcombe are suing The Mail on Sunday’s publisher – Associated Newspapers Limited (ANL) – and its health editor Barney Calman, for libel, over articles in 2019 which they claim described them as “statin deniers” who had caused “grave harm”.

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.

The High Court previously heard that a statement from Hancock was referenced in several paragraphs, with lawyers for the pair claiming it had been presented “in a distorted and misleading way” and was not in the public interest.

Adrienne Page KC also said at a hearing last July it could not be defended using “qualified privilege” – a defence to defamation claims that applies to government and police statements.

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ANL and Calman are defending the libel claim, with lawyers for the publisher previously telling the London court that “allegations of impropriety” about the statement from Mr Hancock “are unsupported by any proper evidence”.

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Public interest defence for Mail on Sunday statins article not allowed

In a 255-page preliminary judgment on Tuesday, Mr Justice Nicklin said that neither Hancock nor his office knew the statement was going to be used in an article which would make “serious allegations against three, named individuals”.

He continued: “In my judgment, the way in which the Hancock statement was used was seriously misleading and gave an entirely false impression of whether Mr Hancock had criticised the three individuals, he had not.”

Mr Justice Nicklin said the reports of Hancock’s statement were not protected by privilege because the references “were not fair or accurate”.

The judge said that other parts of the articles which reported an academic paper were protected by privilege, but that ANL could not use a public interest defence.

He later said that an allegation of malice against Calman had failed.

Mr Justice Nicklin said: “As perhaps the claimants should readily appreciate, there is a material difference between being mistaken and being dishonest.

“Mr Calman is not dishonest, and given the malice plea he has had to face, it is right that I say so clearly.”

More hearings are now expected to take place, with ANL’s remaining defences able to be tested at a further trial, the judge concluded.

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Select and enter your email address Weekly insight into the big strategic issues affecting the future of the news industry. Essential reading for media leaders every Thursday. Your morning brew of news about the world of news from Press Gazette and elsewhere in the media. Sent at around 10am UK time. Our weekly does of strategic insight about the future of news media aimed at US readers. A fortnightly update from the front-line of news and advertising. Aimed at marketers and those involved in the advertising industry.
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