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Harassment by newspaper articles

10 January 2011. Published by Keith Mathieson, Partner

In King v Sunday Newspapers (Northern Ireland High Court, WEA7948) the claimant alleged that a series of articles in the Northern Irish newspaper Sunday World constituted harassment under the Prevention of Harassment (Northern Ireland) Order 1997 (the equivalent of the Protection From Harassment Act 1997).

The case was tried before a High Court judge in Belfast, Weatherup J, who dismissed the claim.

The facts

The claimant, Drew King, was alleged by Sunday World to be a member of the Loyalist Volunteer Force, a proscribed terrorist organisation.  In 2008 the claimant had been charged with the murder of a former Sunday World journalist.  In 2010 the charge was withdrawn.  Between 2002 and 2009 the Sunday World published numerous articles about the claimant.  These articles were highly defamatory of the claimant, alleging involvement in terrorism, murder and drug-dealing.  The claimant did not, however sue for libel (ostensibly for financial reasons) but he did sue for harassment and misuse of private information.  The treatment of his privacy claim is dealt with here.  His claim of harassment was that the series of articles in the Sunday World and the private information they included constituted the pursuit of a course of conduct that amounted to harassment.

The judge's findings

The judge considered Thomas v News Group Newspapers [2001] EWCA Civ 1233.  He directed himself that (a) a series of newspaper articles could amount to a course of conduct under the legislation; (b) the legislation concerned the effects of conduct rather than the nature of the conduct; and (c) harassment is a word that is generally understood as a term that describes conduct targeted at an individual that is calculated to produce alarm and distress and is oppressive and unreasonable.

The judge found that the Sunday World articles had been targeted at the claimant and had been calculated to alarm and distress him.  The question was whether the newspaper had nonetheless acted reasonably such as to excuse its conduct: see  PHA 1997, s. 1(3)(c).  The judge held that the newspaper had acted reasonably.  The central theme of the articles reflected "the reporting of matters of legitimate public interest concerning criminal activity and criminal lifestyle".  Although the judge said that the truth of those matters was not in issue in the proceedings, he also found that some of the reporting had been inaccurate and its publication unwarranted.  Despite those inaccuracies, the judge found that the articles did not "constitute an abuse of the freedom of [the] press which the pressing social needs of a democratic society require should be curbed" and he therefore dismissed the claim.

The case appears to be the first UK case in which harassment by the press has been considered at trial.  The judge's approach has been criticised by the editors of the Inforrm blog here, most specifically the judge's failure to undertake a parallel analysis of the parties' competing Article 8 and 10 rights.

See further section 8.2.4 of the Privacy Law Handbook