J. C. Egbuna V. The Amalgamated Press Of Nigeria Ltd. (1967) LLJR-SC

J. C. Egbuna V. The Amalgamated Press Of Nigeria Ltd. (1967)

LawGlobal-Hub Lead Judgment Report

BRETT, J.S.C.

This is an appeal against the judgement of Alexander J ; in the High Court of Lagos dismissing the plaintiffs claim for damages for libel.

The plaintiff was at the material times General Manager of the Nigerian Railway. The first defendants were the proprietors, publishers and printers and the second defendant the acting Editor of the ‘Daily Express’ newspaper. The Statement of Claim set out the matters with which this appeal is concerned in the following terms-

‘3. On pages 1 and 6 of the issue of the said newspaper dated Monday, November 18, 1963, under the heading:-

Rail Board Rejects £1.8m. Deal

Chairman, General Manager Blamed for Fantastic Bid

the defendants falsely and maliciously printed and published or caused to be printed and published of the plaintiff and of him in the way of his said office and in relation to his conduct therein words highly defamatory and/or imputing a criminal offence contrary to section 98 subsection (I) of the Criminal Code, Cap. 42 Vol. 11 of the 1958 Laws of Nigeria:-

The quotation of the firms were expected to be considered here in Nigeria by the Board. But last month, the Chairman and the General Manager flew to London and opened the tenders. According to the sources there were three quotations: £1.2 million £1.6 million and £1.8 million. The tender of the firm with the highest quotation was selected by them and brought down for ratification by the Board. ‘

‘4. By the words set out in paragraph 3 above the defendants meant and were understood to mean that the plaintiff was guilty of breach of trust, and/or dishonest and/or corrupt and/or unworthy to hold office as the General Manager of the Railway Corporation.’

‘8. On page 6, column 8 the defendants similarly falsely and maliciously printed and published of the plaintiff and of him in the way of his said once:-

… He was said to have ruled that the tender already selected by the Chairman and the General Manager should be accepted without any further delay. But when the decision of the Minister was made known to the Board last week, it was rejected. The Board protested that the Minister ought not to force any decision on a matter like that down their throat, particularly when their own decision was out to economise the funds of the Corporation. “

‘9. By the words set out in paragraph 8 above the defendants meant and were understood to mean that the plaintiff is an unpatriotic person who squanders public funds and therefore not fit to hold the said office, and/or that there was or is collusion between the Minister, the Chairman and the plaintiff to make profit for themselves or squander public funds.’

The trial judge held that the words complained of did not bear the meanings attributed to them in paragraphs 4 and 9 of the Statement of Claim and counsel for the appellant has accepted this finding. He has submitted, however, that these paragraphs did not plead a true innuendo in the legal sense of the term but what has been called a false or popular innuendo: see Lewis v. Daily Telegraph Ltd. [1964] A.C. 234; and that this being so, the court should not merely look at the meaning attributed to the passages complained of in these paragraphs, but should consider the natural and ordinary meaning of the words used: Grubb v. Bristol United Press Ltd. [1963] 1 Q.B. 309. This, he submits, the learned trial judge failed to do.

Counsel for the respondents agreed that it was proper to look at the natural meaning of the words but he submitted that the trial judge had done so. The passage of the judgement on which he relied in reference to the words complained of in paragraph 3 of the statement of Claim (which the judge called Passage A) reads as follows-

‘I do not for a moment think, after having considered the evidence in the case and listened to the arguments of learned counsel, that the words in Passage A bear any of the defamatory meanings ascribed to them by the plaintiff in paragraph 4 of his Statement of Claim, either in their natural and ordinary sense or by any reasonable implication.’

He used a similar expression as regards the other passage which the judge called Passage B) when he said-

‘In the result, I hold that Passages A and B, whether taken singly or together, do not bear the defamatory meanings ascribed to them respectively in paragraphs 4 and 9 of the plaintiffs Statement of Claim. This action is accordingly dismissed’,

and we think these passages show clearly that the judge was considering only the meanings pleaded in paragraphs 4 and 9 of the Statement of Claim and was not looking to see if the words in their natural sense bore any other meaning that was defamatory.

The judge held on the pleadings that the headline of the article which is quoted in paragraph 3 of the Statement of Claim did not form part of the passages complained of as defamatory and was merely quoted for the purpose of identifying the article. This being so he confined his attention to the two passages which he called Passages A and B.

The plaintiff called two witnesses who said that they had read the passages concerned and that in consequence their opinion of the plaintiffs integrity had been seriously shaken. The judge held that these two witnesses were not in fact as ready to believe ill of someone who was a friend of theirs as they made out, and we think this finding was justified, but the judge went on to say this-

‘Further, the statement must amount to a disparagement in the eyes of reasonable persons. In Tolley v. Fry [1930] I K.B. Greer L.J. said at page 479-

‘Words are not actionable as defamatory, however much they may damage a man in the eyes of a section of the community unless they also amount to disparagement of his reputation in the eyes of right-thinking men generally. To write or say of a man something that will disparage him in the eyes of a particular section of the community but will not affect his reputation in the eyes of the average right-thinking man is not actionable within the law of defamation. ‘

Even if the business friends of Mr Wendisch, or members of the Corporation other than the Chairman, did in fact form an unfavourable impression of the plaintiff (although none of these people was called to say so) I do not think it is reasonable to infer that they received their impression solely from reading Passages A and B. These persons form, in any event, particular sections of the community within the meaning of the dictum of Greer L.J. quoted above and consequently, for this reason also, the words contained in Passages A and B cannot be considered to be defamatory.’

We think the judge was mistaken in holding that these persons formed particular sections of the community within the meaning of the dictum which he had quoted. In our view a particular section of the community for this purpose means a body of persons who subscribe to standards of conduct which are not those of society generally; see Mawe v. Piggott (1869) I.R. 4 CL. 54 referred to and quoted in Byrne v. Deane [1937] 1 K.B.818.

Nevertheless, we agree with the trial judges view that Passages A and B do not bear the meanings pleaded in paragraphs 4 and 9 of the Statement of Claim and in what we regard as their ordinary and natural meaning they do not contain anything defamatory of the plaintiff. We have not failed to notice that although Chief Williams devoted much of his argument to inviting the court to consider the ordinary meaning of the words complained of he made no attempt to suggest in what way they were defamatory if they were not defamatory as pleaded in paragraphs 4 and 9, on which he did not rely.

Chief Williams also submitted that the trial judge was wrong in not reading the heading of the article with each of the two passages from the article and he submitted that when read with the heading each paragraph was defamatory. The judge was certainly in error in interpreting the pleading by reference to a letter written on behalf of the plaintiff to the first defendant (exhibit E) in which Passage A, but not the headline, was described as a vicious untruth.

The Statement of Claim must be construed by reference to its own terms without extrinsic aid. The matter is open to argument but we have come to the conclusion that the headline was sufficiently pleaded as part of the matter alleged to be defamatory. Counsel on both sides invited the court, if it took this view, to form its own conclusion on any outstanding questions of fact and, if necessary, to assess damages, rather than send the case back for further consideration in the High Court.

After giving the matter the best consideration we can we are not persuaded that the words complained of would tend to lower the plaintiff in the estimation of right-thinking members of society generally. As we have said, Chief Williams did not specify in what way the headline coupled with the two passages was defamatory of the plaintiff and although it was pleaded in the Statement of Claim that the plaintiff had been injured in the way of his office we were not invited to apply any special test for that reason.

We have come to the conclusion that although the trial judge erred on the pleadings in not considering the headline he came to the right decision.

The appeal is therefore dismissed with costs which we assess at 30 guineas.


Other Citation: (1967) LCN/1538(SC)

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