Tuesday, 24 May 2016

When offence of defamation is made out?

The news-item, Ex. P-1, contains an impressive heading which is bound to attract the attention of the ordinary person. The heading "Bribery even in Congress Elections, Rs. 5,500 spent" will be read by him to mean that Rs. 5,500 have been spent on bribe in the Congress elections to which the news relates. Then the first sentence of the news will bring to him the information that the news pertains to the election of the President of the District Congress Committee which has recently been held and that the news is authentic. The second sentence will make it plain to him that the successful candidate in the election, the person who has been elected President, has spent Rs. 5,500 (the identical figure referred in the heading has spent on bribe) for obtaining the votes of Mandleshwars (voters who elect the District President). In my view, the natural and ordinary meaning of the news as a whole as understood by the ordinary person would be that the newly elected District Congress President has got himself elected by paying money to the voters which is a conduct as reprehensible as bribery. This natural and ordinary meaning of the news attributes to the plaintiff, who was the newly elected President referred in it, a disgraceful conduct tending to lower him in the estimation of right thinking members of society. The learned counsel, however, contends that as bribery in Congress elections is not prohibited under any law, the news as published cannot be held to be defamatory. This contention is without any substance. For holding a statement as defamatory it is not necessary that the statement should attribute to the plaintiff some act prohibited by law, but the test, which I have already quoted above, is to see whether the statement tends to lower the plaintiff in the estimation of right thinking members of society. Although there is ''a broad territory common to law and morality", "where law and morality reinforce and supplement each other as part of the fabric of social life", there are many fields of human activity where "the law shrinks, for one reason or another, from pursuing what may nevertheless be recognized as the authentic path of morality.". (See Dennis Llloyd, the Idea of Law, pelican edition, pp. 57 and 59). It cannot, therefore, be said that imputing to a person certain acts, which are not prohibited by the law, is not to attribute to him a disgraceful conduct affecting his moral character. If the conduct attributed to the plaintiff is a disgraceful conduct affecting his moral character tending to lower him in the estimation of right thinking members of society, the test that the statement is defamatory is satisfied notwithstanding that the conduct attributed is not prohibited by the law. I have no doubt in my mind, that a right thinking Indian citizen who after every five years votes in free and fair elections to send his representatives to the Parliament and State Legislatures, would have nothing but feelings of contempt and ridicule for a person who gets elected to an important office of an important political party organisation such as the Indian National Congress by bribing the voters. Rejecting the first contention of the learned counsel for the appellant, I hold that the news item, Ex. P-1, in its natural and ordinary meaning adversely affected the character of the plaintiff and was per se defamatory.
IN THE HIGH COURT OF MADHYA PRADESH
S. A. No. 334 of 1964
Decided On: 17.11.1967
Appellants: Ramakant
Vs.
Respondent: Devilal Sharma and another
Hon'ble Judges/Coram:
G.P. Singh, J.
Citation: 1969JabLJ:1969MPLJ805

1. This second appeal is by defendant No. 1 who is the Proprietor and Editor of a daily Hindi Newspaper 'Inquilab' printed and published from Chhindwara. In the issue of this paper of 25th February 1961, the following news was published:--
The plaintiff (respondent No. 1) is a member of the Indian National Congress and was elected as President of the District Congress Committee in the year 1961. His case was that the news quoted above related to him and was defamatory. He, therefore, claimed a sum of Rs. 5,000 as damages for the libel. The trial Court decreed the suit for a sum of Rs. 500 and this decree has been upheld in first appeal.
2. Shri Y.S. Dharmadhikari, the learned counsel for the appellant, has raised before me the following three contentions:
(i) the news as published on its proper construction is not defamatory,
(ii) the plaintiff should have pleaded an innuendo, and
(iii) the damages awarded are excessive.
3. Before considering the meaning of the news-item in controversy, certain well-known rules applicable to the present case may first be noticed.
4. The first rule is that the whole of the statement must be read and not only part or parts of it. See Australian News Paper Company v. Bennet (1894) AC 284, p. 288. The second rule is that words are to be taken in the sense which is their natural and ordinary meaning. See Capital and Counties Bank v. G. Henty and Sons (1881-2) 7 AC 741, p. 771. The third rule is that in determining the natural and ordinary meaning, the Court must have regard to what the words would convey to the ordinary man. This third rule has recently been explained by the House of Lords in Lewis and another v. Daily Telegraph, Ltd. and Same v. Associated Newspapers, Ltd. (1963) 2 All ER 151 in the following words:--
"There is no doubt that in actions for libel the question is what the words would convey to the ordinary man; it is not one of construction in the legal sense. The ordinary man does not live in an ivory tower and he is not inhibited by a knowledge of the rules of construction. So he can and does read between the lines in the light of his general knowledge and experience of worldly affairs."
(per Lord Reid, at p. 154.)
"The natural and ordinary meaning of words ought in theory to be the same for the lawyer as for the layman because the lawyer's first rule of construction is that words are to be given their natural and ordinary meaning as popularly understood. The proposition that ordinarily words are the same for the lawyer as for the layman is, as a matter of pure construction, undoubtedly true. But it is very difficult to draw the line between pure construction and implication, and the layman's capacity for implication is much greater than the lawyer's. The lawyer's rule is that the implication must be necessary as well as reasonable. The layman reads in an application much more freely; and, unfortunately, as the law of defamation has to take into account, is especially prone to do so when it is derogatory."
(per Lord Devlin, at p. 169.)
And lastly, after the words have been construed according to rules stated above, the question whether the statement is defamatory should be answered by applying the test:
"Would the words tend to lower the plaintiff in the estimation of right thinking members of society."
(per Lord Atkin,)
In Sim v. Stretch (1936) 2 All ER 1237 (HL), p. 1240. As stated by Salmond:
"The test of defamatory nature of a statement is its tendency to excite against the plaintiff the adverse opinions or feelings of other persons The typical form of defamation is an attack upon the moral character of the plaintiff attributing to him any form of disgraceful conduct..............".
(Salmond, The Law of Torts, 13th Edn. p. 355.)
5. The news-item, Ex. P-1, contains an impressive heading which is bound to attract the attention of the ordinary person. The heading "Bribery even in Congress Elections, Rs. 5,500 spent" will be read by him to mean that Rs. 5,500 have been spent on bribe in the Congress elections to which the news relates. Then the first sentence of the news will bring to him the information that the news pertains to the election of the President of the District Congress Committee which has recently been held and that the news is authentic. The second sentence will make it plain to him that the successful candidate in the election, the person who has been elected President, has spent Rs. 5,500 (the identical figure referred in the heading has spent on bribe) for obtaining the votes of Mandleshwars (voters who elect the District President). In my view, the natural and ordinary meaning of the news as a whole as understood by the ordinary person would be that the newly elected District Congress President has got himself elected by paying money to the voters which is a conduct as reprehensible as bribery. This natural and ordinary meaning of the news attributes to the plaintiff, who was the newly elected President referred in it, a disgraceful conduct tending to lower him in the estimation of right thinking members of society. The learned counsel, however, contends that as bribery in Congress elections is not prohibited under any law, the news as published cannot be held to be defamatory. This contention is without any substance. For holding a statement as defamatory it is not necessary that the statement should attribute to the plaintiff some act prohibited by law, but the test, which I have already quoted above, is to see whether the statement tends to lower the plaintiff in the estimation of right thinking members of society. Although there is ''a broad territory common to law and morality", "where law and morality reinforce and supplement each other as part of the fabric of social life", there are many fields of human activity where "the law shrinks, for one reason or another, from pursuing what may nevertheless be recognized as the authentic path of morality.". (See Dennis Llloyd, the Idea of Law, pelican edition, pp. 57 and 59). It cannot, therefore, be said that imputing to a person certain acts, which are not prohibited by the law, is not to attribute to him a disgraceful conduct affecting his moral character. If the conduct attributed to the plaintiff is a disgraceful conduct affecting his moral character tending to lower him in the estimation of right thinking members of society, the test that the statement is defamatory is satisfied notwithstanding that the conduct attributed is not prohibited by the law. I have no doubt in my mind, that a right thinking Indian citizen who after every five years votes in free and fair elections to send his representatives to the Parliament and State Legislatures, would have nothing but feelings of contempt and ridicule for a person who gets elected to an important office of an important political party organisation such as the Indian National Congress by bribing the voters. Rejecting the first contention of the learned counsel for the appellant, I hold that the news item, Ex. P-1, in its natural and ordinary meaning adversely affected the character of the plaintiff and was per se defamatory.
6. The second contention of the learned counsel for the appellant is that the plaintiff should have pleaded an innuendo to show that news was defamatory. I have already held that the news in its natural and ordinary meaning was defamatory. A plea of innuendo is necessary only when the plaintiff wishes to rely upon some secondary, meaning of the words as distinguished from their natural and ordinary meaning. See Winfiled, The Law of Tort, 7th Edition, pp. 592, 593; Lewis v. Daily Telegraph Ltd. (1963) 2 All ER 151 (HL). Even otherwise I find that the averments in paragraph 6 which are quoted below are quite specific and satisfy the requirement of the law.
"That by reading the said news item anybody, even a common man of an ordinary intelligence is bound to think that the successful candidate (Vijayi Ummidwar) the plaintiff spent Rs. 5,500 in bribing the Mandleshwars (voters) in securing their votes. In the said News Item the sentence--USAME VIJAYEE UMMIDWAR KI AUR SE WINNI MANDLESHARON KA VOTE PRAPT KARNE KE LIYE 5,500 RUPAYE KHARCH KIYA GAYA HAI--clearly refers to the plaintiff alone and to nobody else. The aforesaid words in the said news-item of the 'Inquilab' issued of 25th February 1961 in context with the head --"CONGRESS CHUNAV ME BHI GHUNS-KHORI--5,500 RUPAYE KHARCH HUYE" clearly refer to the plaintiff alone and to nobody else and were meant to defame the plaintiff alone. The said news item is prima facie defamatory of the plaintiff and whosoever whether belonging to Congress Party or not reads the said news-item, is bound to have low opinion about the plaintiff and they did have such an opinion about the plaintiff."
7. Lastly, it has been faintly argued that the damages awarded are excessive. There is no force in this contention. The injury was aggravated by another publication in the issue of the newspaper dated 8-4-1961, Ex. P-2, where the appellant instead of withdrawing the allegations in Ex. P-1, asserted that he has adequately replied to the plaintiff's notice and has himself claimed a sum of rupees one lakh from him as damages. The sum of Rs. 500 awarded by the Courts below can in no manner be called excessive.
8. As a result, this appeal fails and is dismissed with costs.
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