Mexborough & Swinton Times, July 1920
The Summing Up
Principles of Fair Comment
The Assessment of Damages
In his summing up, Mr Justice Shearman described the case as a very difficult one. It dealt with a question which was of undoubted public interest at the present time. The jury should look at the matter impartially. The action was one for defamation of character by something which had been spoken.What had been put in the papers the newspapers would be responsible for, and he was not concerned with them. What the jury had to consider was whether the words carried an imputation on the plaintiffs in the character of the business. The plaintiffs were a Trading company, and they said that the imputation was on them in their business, and was likely to prevent colliers coming to the village. If there was an imputation, the jury had to consider whether it was defamatory.
The defendant said:
“I was not speaking these words in an attack on the colliery company.” and that she did not intend making any imputation on the company. First of all, the jury must recollect that it was not what she intended to place before the year is, but what she did place before them that mattered in this case. Speakers might go on and lose their heads and say something that they did not intend to, but that fact would not help them. They had to decide what was the meaning of the speech in the minds of her hearers? They had to decide if the words carried an imputation. And then, was it fair comment? On many occasions people made imputationand yet did not exceed the bounds of fair comment.
There were two principles they had to keep in mind – one, that no man or company should be improperly attacked, and the other, the right of free speech. Everyone had the right of expressing their opinion on matters of public interest. The jury had to hold the scales between those two principles. The right of free expression of opinion was not peculiar to newspapers; it was a right every individual had in his own house, smoking room, or at a public meeting. If they had to consider the question of damages – he did not say they would have to consider the question, but if they did – damages against an individual were not the same thing as damages against a company.
An individual generally suffered more definitely. A private individual was entitled to more severe damages, because his friends might not shake hands with him or invite him out to dinner. (Laughter.)
They need not award any damages, but if they thought the the action was properly brought this should not award contemptuous damages of one farthing. They must remember that comment was not unfair because it disagreed with their own views. All people were entitled to their views. They had to consider whether, on the real facts of the case – not what the defendant imagined were the facts of the case – the lady went beyond the line of fair comment in regard to that matter.
Verdict for the colliery company – Damages £5
“A very sensible verdict”
The hearing of evidence occupied the whole of Monday , and the final addresses to the jury were delivered on Tuesday morning.
The jury retired at 11.50 to consider their verdict and had not returned at 1.20, when the court adjourned for lunch, but immediately on resumption, they announced that they had found in favour of the plaintiff and awarded £5 damages.
His Lordship thanked the jury for their services in a very difficult case, and added: “If I may say so, I think it is a very sensible verdict.” He stated that the costs of the jury’s view of Denaby would be costs in the action.