Favell v Queensland Newspapers Pty Ltd

Citation: (2005) 221 ALR 186

The first respondent was the publisher of a newspaper in which an article by the second respondent appeared. The article, entitled “Development site destroyed — Fire guts riverside mansion”, reported that a house owned by the appellants, that was the subject of a controversial development application, had been destroyed by fire.

As a result of publication of the article, the appellants commenced proceedings for defamation in the Supreme Court of Queensland. It was alleged that a number of imputations could be drawn from the article including that the appellants committed arson, that they were reasonably suspected by the police of having committed arson, and that the second appellant lied about the controversial nature of the development.

The respondents sought orders that the pleadings alleging the imputations be struck out, and that summary judgment for the respondent be given if satisfied no reasonable cause of action be disclosed. The court ordered the imputations be struck out, but did not enter summary judgment against the appellants.

An appeal to the Court of Appeal of Queensland was dismissed although the court concluded the article was capable of conveying to an ordinary reasonable reader the imputation that there were reasonable grounds for suspecting the appellants may have been responsible for the fire.

The question before the High Court was whether the article was capable of giving rise to the defamatory imputations alleged.

Held, allowing the appeal:

(i) The article was capable of conveying the imputations that the appellants committed arson, that they were reasonably suspected by the police of having committed arson, and that the second appellant lied about the controversial nature of the development: at [18], [19], [22].

(ii) Per Gleeson CJ, McHugh, Gummow, and Heydon JJ (Kirby J dissenting): In determining whether words are capable of conveying defamatory meaning, the court should look to whether reasonable persons would understand the words complained of in a defamatory sense, keeping in mind that ordinary readers draw implications more freely: at [9]–[11], [23]–[26].

(iii) Whether a pleading of this nature should be struck out as disclosing no cause of action is a matter for the discretion of the judge acting with great caution: at [6], [19].