Case Summary: Mirror Newspapers Ltd v Harrison (1982)

 
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Case Summary: Mirror Newspapers Ltd v Harrison (1982)

 

Key: [x] = case paragraph number

 

Citations

 

Mirror Newspapers Ltd v Harrison (1982) 149 CLR 293; [1982] HCA 50; 56 ALJR 808; 42 ALR 487

 

Facts

 

Matter:

 

The newspaper, the Daily Mirror, published the following:

"On the front page, in headlines two inches high, the article says:
'BALDWIN: 4 ARRESTS' and, in smaller type: '3 MEN, WOMAN HELD IN RAIDS'. The headline on the second page is: 'BALDWIN - 4 ARRESTED' and, in smaller type: 'Police raid city homes.' On each of the two pages there is a photograph of the plaintiff (with part of his face blocked out) as one of the three men arrested. The article states that the arrests were made 'in dawn raids today over the bashing of State Labour M. P. Peter Baldwin'. Mr. Baldwin is said to have been 'viciously bashed by at least two men' and to have suffered 'shocking facial injuries and a fractured skull and requiring more than 50 stitches in his wounds' necessitating 'almost two weeks in hospital'. The article reminds its readers that Mr. Baldwin had earlier made allegations of vote-rigging and of the infiltration of organized crime into inner-City Labor Party branches, and implies that the attack upon him was in reprisal for those allegations. The arrests are said to have followed a month of 'intensive investigation by a special squad of detectives' who had 'worked around the clock to fulfil a directive from the Deputy Premier, Mr. Ferguson, that the culprits be found'. The article says that a fourth man may be arrested and that all five are expected to appear in Court later that day, to be charged with 'conspiracy and fraud'. The article states that tight security will surround the Court when they so appear. [3]

 

Imputations:

 

  1. "That the plaintiff was directly or indirectly involved in the vicious bashing of Mr. Peter Baldwin on the night of 17th July 1980 whereby Mr. Baldwin suffered shocking facial injuries and a fractured skull, required treatment consisting of more than fifty stitches in his wounds and spent almost two weeks in hospital;" [3]

  2. "That the plaintiff was guilty of a criminal offence in connection with the said bashing." [3]

 

Issues

 

Whether the matter was capable of conveying the imputation that the plaintiff was guilty of a criminal offence. [1], [3], [23]

 

Ratio Decidendi

 

Principle: The ordinary reasonable person knows that a report that states that a person has been arrested and charged for an offence does not imply that they are guilty of that offence. 

Per Mason J with Gibbs CJ, Wilson J, and Brennan J in agreement:

[16] As we have seen, there is now a strong current of authority supporting the view that a report which does no more than state that a person has been arrested and has been charged with a criminal offence is incapable of bearing the imputation that he is guilty or probably guilty of that offence. ... The ordinary reasonable reader is mindful of the principle that a person charged with a crime is presumed innocent until it is proved that he is guilty. The ordinary reasonable reader is mindful of the principle that a person charged with a crime is presumed innocent until it is proved that he is guilty. Although he knows that many persons charged with a criminal offence are ultimately convicted, he is also aware that guilt or innocence is a question to be determined by a court, generally by a jury, and that not infrequently the person charged is acquitted.

[17] In this situation the reader will view the plaintiff with suspicion, concluding that he is a person suspected by the police of having committed the offence and that they have ground for laying a charge against him. But this does not warrant the conclusion that by reporting the fact of arrest and charge a newspaper is imputing that the person concerned is guilty. 

Principle: The ordinary reasonable person will not convey and imputation which is based off prejudices and factually incorrect beliefs.

At [17] per Mason J with Gibbs CJ, Wilson J, and Brennan J in agreement:

A distinction needs to be drawn between the reader's understanding of what the newspaper is saying and judgments or conclusions which he may reach as a result of his own beliefs and prejudices. It is one thing to say that a statement is capable of bearing an imputation defamatory of the plaintiff because the ordinary reasonable reader would understand it in that sense, drawing on his own knowledge and experience of human affairs in order to reach that result. It is quite another thing to say that a statement is capable of bearing such an imputation merely because it excites in some readers a belief or prejudice from which they proceed to arrive at a conclusion unfavourable to the plaintiff. The defamatory quality of the published material is to be determined by the first, not by the second, proposition. 

 

Holding

 

The matter is not capable of conveying the imputation that the plaintiff is guilty of the criminal offence.

 

Obiter Dicta

 

Principle: A report which states that the plaintiff has been arrested and charged with an offence can be conveyed by the ordinary reasonable person to mean that the police had reasonable cause to suspect that the plaintiff committed the offence. 

At [18]:

Although Sugerman A.C.J. in Rochfort (1972) 1 NSWLR 16 stated that a report of the kind discussed is incapable of bearing an imputation other than what it actually states, namely that the plaintiff has been arrested and charged with an offence,I think that it is capable of bearing the imputation that the police suspected him of having committed the offence and that they had reasonable cause for doing so. That in my opinion is what the ordinary reasonable reader would understand to be conveyed by such a report. His understanding would, as it happens, reflect the conditions according to which in New South Wales a constable is empowered to arrest without a warrant. By s. 352(2) of the Crimes Act 1900 (N.S.W.) a constable is entitled to apprehend without warrant "any person whom he, with reasonable cause, suspects of having committed" an offence. The provisions of the Justices Act 1902 (N.S.W.) regulating the laying of information for indictable offences, which must be on oath, and the laying of informations or complaints for summary offences, which need not be on oath, as a preliminary to the issue of a warrant or summons, do not speak of reasonable cause. But there can be no doubt there must be reasonable cause for the informant's belief that the plaintiff has committed the offence. When the plaintiff is arrested pursuant to a warrant is a s. 23 or s. 59 of the Justices Act, the issue of the warrant is a consequence of the exercise of a judicial discretion by the justice or magistrate issuing the warrant (Ex parte Qantas Airways Ltd.; Re Horsington (1969) 71 SR (NSW) 291, at pp 301, 305-306 ; Halsbury's Laws of England, 4th ed. (1976) vol. 11, par. 95). But the ordinary reasonable reader, unaware of this refinement, will still conclude that it is the informant who suspects, with reasonable cause, that the plaintiff has committed the offence.

This is obiter because both Gibbs CJ at [2] and Brennan J did not think that it was an issue in this case.

 

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[Image: Mr. Peter Baldwin in hospital after the bashing]

 
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