A High Court decision from Monday this week, after a preliminary issue hearing, caught my attention when I noticed that it contained several interesting points on the issue of “reference” as it applies to defamation claims.
First, a compilation. For a claim based on defamation to succeed, there are a number of elements that need to be established. One of them is to identify the claimant by reference, i.e. publishing the defamatory statement.
Claimants must prove that the words complained of were published about them, i.e. they were mentioned in the article.
In many cases this will be straightforward but recent decisions show Sir James Dyson and Ors v. Channel Four Television Corporation and Anr  EWHC 2718 (KB)There are exceptions to this rule.
The plaintiffs in the case, Sir James Dyson and two subsidiaries of the Dyson Group of Companies, sued Channel Four Television and Independent Television News.
The claim centered on a news item broadcast on Channel 4 News in February 2022 about alleged abuses by ATA Industrial, a Malaysian company that previously manufactured Dyson products, until their contract was terminated after a final audit that uncovered evidence of serious problems.
The claimants alleged that the broadcast carried a defamatory implication that they were all involved in the abuse and torture of factory workers.
As is now common practice in defamation proceedings, it was decided that there should be a trial of the primary issues which had to be considered in the matter of reference in the case and to an extent the meaning of the defamation.
In submissions, the claimants told the court that viewers would assume that since he is the face of the company, Sir James Dyson must know what is going on in all aspects of the corporation.
In addition, any reference to Dyson shall be taken to refer to all Dyson companies, including the two claimant companies.
The defendants rejected this claim, admitting that although Sir James Dyson was identified, it was not in a way that could be considered defamatory.
Furthermore, they argued that since the two claimant companies did not have names, and no additional information was provided to lead a reasonable audience to identify them as the relevant corporate entities, they were not able to establish the reference.
In his judgment, Mr Justice Nicklin agreed with the defendants and held that the two subsidiaries could not establish reference because the broadcast was not specifically identified as the relevant entity among all those included in the wider group structure.
He contends that contrary to the Claimants’ contention, a mere reference to the Dyson Group cannot be held to identify two specific companies forming part of that Group.
Further, the judge stated that no basis had been raised by the claimants on which it could be said that viewers of the broadcast could have had additional knowledge which would have enabled them to identify these two specific companies as responsible for the execution. Necessary operations in Malaysia.
As for Sir James Dyson himself, Nicklin J held that although Sir James was referred to by name and depicted in the broadcast, no reasonable reader could consider that he was in any way directly responsible for the day-to-day management. Malaysian manufacturer.
In his judgment he said: “Only a reader hopelessly naive about the way global companies like Dyson operate could consider that a single man, its founder, was responsible for the day-to-day management of what happened in a manufacturing plant supplying its products.”
As such, the broadcast was incapable of being defamatory.
This is an interesting consideration of the principles of reference as they apply to both corporate and individual claimants. The judgment is a helpful reminder that establishing references is not a simple tick box exercise. Importantly, it demonstrates the need to be specific in the use of language when serious allegations are made against a particular company or individual.
But the flip side is that if journalists decide to make a serious allegation against a company or individual by taking care to identify the right perpetrator, they need not fear legal threats from third parties who have no actual involvement with the allegation under review. .