Libel — newspaper article —offending parts alone might be defamatory, but ordinary reader would not deem it as such when text is viewed as a whole
The plaintiff’s (“P”) telecommunications company applied for a free television broadcasting licence. In a telephone interview with a popular Chinese-language newspaper (“D”), P used the phrase “easy” – as translated from Chinese - while commenting on Hong Kong’s media. D then published an article headlined “[P] criticises [TVB] for being “shallow”, with an introductory paragraph stating “[P] says with supreme confidence that he has had unusual tactic ready – ‘to win over shallowness with knowledge!’” (the “Offending Parts”, as again unofficially translated from Chinese). P sued D asserting that the article was defamatory by suggesting that P was not only arrogant, but also portrayed himself as superior to his potential business competitors and publicly demeaned them.
Held, dismissing the action, that:
In defamation action not involving innuendo, the words complained of are normally construed based on their natural and ordinary meaning. While the same words might bear different meanings to different readers, the court must ascertain a single meaning which the fictitious ordinary reader would attach to those words, taking into account the context, circumstances and article as a whole; this would be a question of fact.
Here, P had not uttered the word “shallow” or words to such effect. But on the whole, the article bore no defamatory imputation of and concerning P. An ordinary reader would understand the single meaning of the whole article to be that P would be able to profitably exploit a market sector. Thus, any adverse impression arising out of the discrepancies between the offending parts and the text would be held against D’s writer/editor rather than P.