Council Held to Account Over False Claims
Press releases circulated by public authorities enjoy a high level of credence and are widely published across the media. However, their accuracy is not guaranteed and, in one case, a man who was wrongly accused of causing the death of rare breed cattle in his care secured £9,000 in libel damages from a local authority.
After the council mounted a successful prosecution, the man was convicted of five counts of neglecting the welfare of his cattle. Amongst other things, he failed to take reasonable steps to ensure that they received adequate fresh water or a wholesome diet. However, it was never alleged in the context of the criminal proceedings that he had caused the death of any of the animals concerned.
The council circulated a strongly-worded press release to the media following the convictions, which received a great deal of local and national publicity. It stated in terms that the man's neglect of his herd had led to the death of three cows. After he launched proceedings, the council conceded that that allegation was defamatory and made an offer of amends.
In assessing the level of the man's damages, the High Court noted that he could not be viewed as wholly innocent and that the fact of the convictions had caused some damage to his good name in any event. However, given the wide republication of the defamatory words in the press release and the public revulsion he subsequently endured, his reputation had been seriously harmed.