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BBC defends defamation claim using justification defence

The BBC has successfully defended a claim that it defamed a London imam before the High Court in London.03 Nov 2016

The comments in question were made on the BBC's Sunday Politics programme in November 2013. Mr Justice Haddon-Cave ruled the meaning of the words complained of was that Shakeel Begg, chief imam at Lewisham Islamic Centre, was an extremist Islamic speaker who espouses extremist Islamic positions and that he had recently promoted and encouraged religious violence by telling Muslims that violence in support of Islam would constitute a man’s greatest deed.

Begg submitted evidence of his inter-faith and community work, as well as testimonials in support of him, to show that he was against extremism.

However, having reviewed all of the evidence, Mr Justice Haddon-Cave described Begg as "something of a ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ character" and said that he "appears to present one face to the general local and inter-faith community and another to particular Muslim and other receptive audiences". Begg had previously "shed the cloak of respectability and revealed the horns of extremism", the judge said.

In assessing the BBC's defence of justification against the defamation claim filed against the broadcaster, Mr Justice Haddon-Cave analysed speeches, statements and documents containing views expressed by Begg which the BBC had submitted in evidence. In order to assess the materials in context, the court also heard from a number of experts on Islam, as well as reading the entire Qur’an and many other materials about Islam. The judge said the evidence supported the BBC's claims that the comments made on the Sunday Politics show were substantially true.

In his ruling (92-page / 1.19MB PDF), Mr Justice Haddon-Cave said: "I find the words complained of are substantially true in their meanings: [Begg] is an extremist Islamic speaker who espouses extremist Islamic positions. [Begg] had recently promoted and encouraged religious violence by telling Muslims that violence in support of Islam would constitute a man’s greatest deed."

"In my judgement, taken cumulatively, [Begg's] speeches and postings, represent an overwhelming case of justification for the BBC… If there had been simply a single ‘one off’ speech, there might be pause for thought. However, these half-dozen speeches represent a consistent pattern of behaviour on the part of [Begg] of fomenting extremist ideas and ideology before engaged and receptive Muslim audiences," the judge said.

Media law expert Imogen Allen-Back of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, said that this was likely to be one of the last defamation cases based on defamation laws that preceded the 2013 Defamation Act. Allen-Back said that the defence of justification was replaced by the defence of truth set out in Section 2 of the 2013 Act.

"This case is interesting, because it shows the sheer volume of evidence which often has to be considered and analysed by the court in order to establish the truth of any statements complained of," said Allen-Back.