In the case of Carruthers v Associated Newspapers ( EWHC 33 (QB)) , the claimant a child welfare chief who worked for the council involved in two major scandals over ill-treatment of children failed in a bid to sue two newspaper publishers for defamation.
Mr Justice Nicklin gave News Group Newspapers, publisher of The Sun, and Associated Newspapers, publisher of the Daily Mail and Mail online, summary judgment against Carol Carruthers over stories reporting that while at work she had sent sextual texts and images to a man she met on an online dating website.
But she is still able to proceed with claims against both publishers for misuse of private information and/or under data protection legislation.
Ms Carruthers, who is in her 60s, resigned from her post as Deputy Assistant Director of Children’s Safeguarding and Head of Services for Children In Need of Support and Protection at Haringey Council, north-west London, after being suspended when the stories appeared in the Daily Mail and Sun newspapers, and on the Mail Online and Sun website, in March 2017.
Haringey Council was the local authority involved in the scandals over child care failures in both the Baby P and Victoria Climbie cases.
Associated Newspaper and News Group Newspapers both applied for a preliminary hearing to decide the meaning of the words complained off, and whether they were statements of fact of expressions of opinion, and for summary judgment on the grounds that Ms Carruthers had not real prospect of succeeding with her defamation claim.
They also argued that it was not of itself defamatory of someone to say that she had sent sexual messages, some containing images of herself, to a person she had met on a dating website.
Mr Justice Nicklin said he could understand why Ms Carruthers believed that juxtaposing the allegations about the messages and photographs with reports of the Baby P and Victoria Climbie scandals might lead some readers to make a connection between the two matters. He went on:
“In my judgment, in relation to the articles published by both defendants, the hypothetical ordinary reasonable reader, having read the whole of the relevant article, could not conclude that the claimant was in any way connected with the Baby P and Victoria Climbie
cases, other than the fact that she worked for the Council. Although there is undoubted juxtaposition of the two strands in the articles, neither of them could be read as suggesting a connection between these strands. The historic failures in relation to Baby P and Victoria Climbie happened over between 11 and 18 years ago whereas the events concerning the Claimant are recent events and are the basis of (and reason for) publication of the articles (as is clear, for example, from the headlines).” 
It was a “forced and unreasonable reading” to claim that the ordinary reasonable reader would understand the first Sun and Sun website articles to allege that Ms Carruthers posed a “serious danger and risk to vulnerable children in her charge”.
The articles, said the judge, meant first, that Ms Carruthers, who held a senior post at Haringey Council, sent several sexual messages and images she had taken of herself to a man she met on a dating site; and, second, that doing this while she was at work was inappropriate and unprofessional behaviour for someone in her position.
The first part of the meaning was factual and was not defamatory, and the second was an expression of opinion.
The second part of the meaning was also protected by the honest opinion defence in section 3 of the Defamation Act 2013, and Ms Carruthers had no real prospect of success in trying to overcome it.
Both publishers were entitled to summary judgment on the defamation claims.
Hearing: December 18, 2018; Decision: January 14, 2019
Robert Sterling, instructed by Carruthers Law, for the claimant;
Catrin Evans QC and Sarah Palin, instructed by Wiggin LLP, for
Associated Newspapers Ltd, and Adam Wolanski, instructed by
Simons Muirhead & Burton LLP, for News Group Newspapers Ltd.
This report originally appeared on the online subscription service Media Lawyer and is reproduced with permission and thanks.