Jeremy Corbyn loses appeal against judge’s findings on first stage of libel case

Former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn
Former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn (PA Archive)
16:17pm, Tue 20 Apr 2021
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Jeremy Corbyn has lost an appeal against a High Court judge’s findings in a libel claim brought against the former Labour leader by a political blogger.

Commentator Richard Millett is suing Mr Corbyn over remarks he made during an interview on the BBC’s Andrew Marr show in 2018, when he was leader of the opposition.

Mr Corbyn says he was defending himself against allegations of anti-Semitism when he made the comments and is contesting the case.

During the broadcast, Mr Corbyn was asked if he was an anti-Semite and shown a recording of a speech he made in 2013 in which he referred to “Zionists” who “don’t understand English irony”.

In response, Mr Corbyn referred to two people having been “incredibly disruptive” and “very abusive” at a meeting in the House of Commons the same year, at which Manuel Hassassian – then Palestinian ambassador to the UK – was speaking.

Mr Millett’s legal action is brought on the basis that, although he was not named by Mr Corbyn, he was defamed because national media coverage before the broadcast made him identifiable to viewers as one of those referred to.

Giving judgment on a number of preliminary issues in the case in July last year, Mr Justice Saini made a decision on the “natural and ordinary meaning” of the words complained of by Mr Millett and found that they referred to him.

The judge found the meaning of the words included that Mr Millett had been “so disruptive” that police wished to remove him from the premises, that he had acted in a disruptive way at other meetings and that Mr Hassassian was “caused distress” by his behaviour.

He also concluded the remarks were a “statement of fact”, rather than opinion, and were defamatory of Mr Millett at common law.

Mr Corbyn challenged some of the judge’s findings at a Court of Appeal hearing in March.

His lawyers argued the judge was wrong to find his statement was “entirely factual” and said it was the “exercise of the right to freedom of expression by a senior politician in the context of a discussion about a highly charged and sensitive political issue”.

They also argued the statement was not defamatory at common law.

But Mr Corbyn’s appeal was dismissed by three senior judges in a ruling on Tuesday.

The judge was right to hold that such allegations would tend to have a substantial adverse effect on the attitude that people would take to Mr Millett

Lord Justice Warby, who heard the appeal with Sir Geoffrey Vos and Dame Victoria Sharp, said that having watched the whole interview he agreed with Mr Justice Saini.

He said: “Mr Corbyn was giving his explanation as to why he had said that the Zionists in the 2013 meeting did not understand English irony.

“To do so, he was explaining, from his standpoint, what had happened. He was telling the story. In doing so, he provided factual background and context.

“In the particular words complained of he was, in my judgment, presenting viewers with a factual narrative: the people referred to had disrupted several meetings at the House of Commons; at one such meeting they had been extremely disruptive; and on the most recent occasion, whilst they had let Mr Hassassian speak, they had subjected him to extreme abuse afterwards.

“This would all have struck the viewer as Mr Corbyn’s explanation of the factual background to his statement about ‘English irony’.”

Lord Justice Warby also agreed with the judge’s conclusion that the statement was defamatory at common law.

He said: “Alleging disruptive behaviour that leads the police to want to remove a person from a public meeting, and alleging such verbal abuse of a public speaker that the leader of the opposition was forced to speak up in controversial terms to defend him, crosses the common law threshold of seriousness.

“The judge was right to hold that such allegations would tend to have a substantial adverse effect on the attitude that people would take to Mr Millett.”

Unless a settlement is reached between Mr Corbyn and Mr Millett, the case will now proceed to a full libel trial.

Mr Corbyn said in a statement after the ruling: “I am disappointed by the decision in this case announced by the court today. I am considering all legal options that are open to me.”

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