Although the Simon Singh appeal (see our posts here and here) was the most newsworthy libel case last week, another interesting matter was being dealt with in the Courts.  This was the defendant’s summary judgment application in the case of Robert Dee v Telegraph Media Group was heard on 24 and 25 February 2010 by Mrs Justice Sharp. 

The story concerns a professional tennis player, Robert Dee (pictured) who had lost a lot of matches.  News stories about the case have been published in the Guardian and a wide range of international media.

The claim arose out of an article published on 23 April 2008 in the Daily Telegraph.  The paper published material on the front page and page 20 of the Sport section under the headings “World’s worst tennis pro wins at last” and “A British tennis sensation – the world’s worst”.  The story was repeated by a number of different media outlets and Mr Dee brought a number of claims, all of which apart from the Telegraph appear to have settled.

The claim form against the Telegraph was issued on 21 April 2009.  The claimant alleges that the words complained meant that:

“until his win at the Reus tournament near Barcelona, the Claimant had lost 54 consecutive professional matches during his three years on the professional tennis circuit, and had therefore proved himself to be the worst professional tennis player in the world.”

The Defence denied that either article is defamatory and advances substantive defences of justification and fair comment in relation to the following meanings:-

5.1.  The Claimant lost 54 consecutive matches in straight sets in tournaments on the international professional circuit; and/or

5.2.  The Claimant lost 54 consecutive matches in straight sets in tournaments that contribute to a player’s world ranking;

5.3.  In consequence, he merited being ranked or described as the world’s worst professional tennis player.”

On 17 December 2009, the Defendant applied for summary judgment on the basis that on the basis that the articles were not capable of being defamatory and, in any event, he had no real prospect of rebutting the justification and/or fair comment defences.   This is the Defendant’s Primary Skeleton Argument in support of its application for summary judgment and this is its Defendant’s Single Meaning Skeleton.  This is the Claimant’s Skeleton Argument in opposition to the application.

Any application for summary judgment in a libel case is difficult – because any seriously disputed issues of fact or meaning have to be left to the jury – nevertheless, the case is a remarkable one and it is not surprising that an application was made.

Mr David Price, Solicitor Advocate, for the Telegraph, argued that it was true that the claimant had lost 54 tennis matches in a row and the contention that he was “the world’s worst” was a value judgment.   He also pointed out that the claimant’s reliance only on the front page of the newspaper and not on the article in Sports Section was contrary to the principle in Charleston v News Group Newspapers Ltd ([1995] 2 AC 65) – that a claim for libel could not be founded on a headline or photograph in isolation from the related text.

Mr Dee’s counsel, Andrew Caldecott QC contended that

“The claimant has a serious and substantial complaint … The complaint in this action is that in the interests of entertaining readers he was wrongly branded as the world’s worst tennis professional, and his record and ranking were wholly misinterpreted on the front page of a national newspaper, which would have been widely read by his friends and acquaintances.”

In the course of argument Mrs Justice Sharp raised the question as to whether it was defamatory of someone at all to say that they are the “world’s worst tennis professional”.  Mr Caldecott’s response was that it is defamatory to hold a person up to “ridicule and contempt”.   He contended that the claimant had a “strong case which is entirely fit to go to trial”.

Judgment has been reserved and we will report on it when it is handed down.