High Court rules online newspaper articles were not harassment: data protection claims also rejected

May 18, 2020

The High Court has dismissed claims for harassment and breach of data protection law against two newspaper publishers in Sube and another v News Group Newspapers Ltd and another [2020] EWHC 1125 (QB).

The claims were brought by a couple from Cameroon who had moved to the UK from France.  They had eight (then nine) children and believed that the house in which they had been housed was too small. Several newspapers published articles which criticised the family for their complaints to the council about the accommodation, and members of the public posted racist and abusive comments on the online versions of the articles.

The family argued that the articles and posts breached the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 and brought a claim for breach of section 10 of the Data Protection Act 1998 (the right to prevent processing likely to cause damage or distress).

The court dismissed the claim under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997. It said that the family had looked for press publicity. In addition, the evidence indicated that the newspapers only found out about the internet posts when the family‚Äôs solicitors drew them to their attention. 

The newspapers had provided a platform which enabled readers to post comments on the defendant’s articles. At the minimum, this allowed or facilitated the communication of some such comments to other readers and to the general public via the website. However, the judge said he could not make a finding that the newspapers did this, knowing the content of all or any of the posts complained of, let alone with actual knowledge that some of them were racist and offensive. That would be entirely contrary to the evidence.

The newspapers had provided a platform that allowed or facilitated the communication of abusive comments. However, there was no evidence that any individuals within the newspaper groups intended that such comments should be published. The judge did not believe this behaviour could be properly regarded as part of a course of “targeted” conduct by the defendant, that had an “oppressive” character, and was criminal in character.

In any event, even if this analysis was wrong, the judge said that he would conclude that the nature of the publications under consideration, including the articles and the posts, was not harassment within the meaning of the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, as set out in the case law. This is because

(a) the subject-matter of the articles was of legitimate interest to the public, and the reporting could only be held to be tortious if that was an interference with freedom of speech that is necessary in order to protect the rights of the claimants; and 

(b) the content and the manner of publication of the articles and posts, even considered as a single course of conduct, was not offensive, insulting, alarming or distressing to the degree that would be necessary to sustain criminal liability.

The judge also dismissed the claim under section 10 of the Data Protection Act 1998. This was because the newspaper concerned had ceased to process the data by publication. It held only hard copies, for archive purposes. Even if that amounted to processing (which it may not), the section 10 notice was not aimed at processing of that kind, which could not cause damage or distress and is not alleged to have done so. There is no basis on which the judge could be satisfied that the newspaper failed to comply with the notice, or that any remedy under section 10(4) should be granted.