High Court rules out website libel

The UK High Court has added a new ruling to what does or does not constitute libel. Now compensation isn’t due not only if the article in question is factually correct, or isn’t published with malicious intent, but also if only four people have read it.

Legal site out-law.com reports that a libel action over an article that appeared on the website of a South African magazine was thrown out because the offending story had received only four visits from the UK in a two month period.

LonZim, an investment firm part owned by African conglomerate Lonrho, was suing Andrew Sprague, a non-exec director of a company that held LonZim shares. Sprague criticized LonZim’s management in South African magazine Financial Mail in May this year. The claimants said he was accusing them of having ‘cynically and greedily indulged in self-enrichment at the expense of, and contrary to the interests of, shareholders.’

But the court threw out the lawsuit, saying the claimants had failed to establish ‘substantial publication’.

Mr Justice Tugendhat said that in allegations of online libel, the claimant ‘must prove publication within England and Wales and that previous cases had established that publication requires evidence of readership, not just availability’.

The claimants argued that ‘a significant proportion’ of the magazine’s online traffic came from England and Wales but failed to provide any supporting evidence of it.

The accused produced evidence of traffic figures from the website for the two months following the date of publication, showing a total of 65 visits for the contentious article and just four from the UK.

In dismissing the case, the judge observed that the case could have been pursued ‘for reasons other than to obtain vindication of the claimants’ reputations,’ citing an email allegedly sent from Lonzim to the defendant which read: “I will nail you to the corporate cross for the stuff you said about us. I will stomp your corporate head.”

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