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Begg v British Broadcasting Corporation [2016] EWHC 2688 (QB)

Case date: 28/10/2016

Court: High Court

Area/s of law: Defamation

Barrister/s: Andrew Caldecott QC, Jane Phillips

Background

In November 2013, the BBC broadcast an episode of the Sunday Politics programme that posed the question, “are mosques doing enough to counter extremism?”  Mr Begg, Chief Imam at Lewisham Islamic Centre (“LIC”), brought a claim in defamation against the BBC, in respect of words spoken by the programme’s presenter, including: “The East London Mosque…it’s also the venue for a number of extremist speakers and speakers who espouse extremist positions.  This year Shakeel Begg, he spoke there and hailed jihad as ‘the greatest of deeds’…” 

The words were broadcast before the provisions of the Defamation Act 2013 took effect.  The BBC consequently relied on the defence of justification, governed by common law and s.5 Defamation Act 1952. 

Decision

Haddon-Cave J found that the BBC had succeeded in its defence of justification.  He therefore dismissed Mr Begg’s claim.  

Key points

Haddon-Cave J held that the words complained of in the broadcast meant: (1) Mr Begg is an extremist Islamic speaker who espouses extremist Islamic positions; (2) Mr Begg had recently promoted and encouraged religious violence by telling Muslims that violence in support of Islam would constitute a man’s greatest deed: [74].

In support of its defence of justification, the BBC relied upon: a number of speeches given by Mr Begg between 2006 and 2011; a document posted on the internet by Mr Begg in 2009 in which he criticised the behaviour of Sheikh Tawfique Chowdhury; and a press statement issued by the LIC in January 2016, in which Mr Begg had a hand: [75]. 

Haddon-Cave J found that in six of the speeches and in his post criticising Sheikh Chowdhury, Mr Begg “espoused extremist Islamic positions” (and, in four of these, he additionally “promoted or encouraged religious violence”): see findings at [158], [188], [250], [266], [308], [332].  He further held that one of those speeches, given by him at the LIC in May 2009, would have been sufficient to make good the BBC’s case on justification on its own: [253], [367]. The press statement, while not itself evidence of extremism, nevertheless “re-enforced the picture of Mr Begg as someone who expresses intemperate views”: [341].  Taken cumulatively, the speeches and documents relied upon represented an “overwhelming case of justification”: [368].

The BBC accepted that there were two errors of details in its broadcast, regarding the precise location and timing of Mr Begg’s speeches.  However, Haddon-Cave J held that neither of those errors was of significance and that the substance of the charge against Mr Begg remained true: [358]-[364].

Haddon-Cave J further held that even if he had found that the BBC’s defence of justification was not fully made out, he would nonetheless have found that Mr Begg had been, at best, reckless and irresponsible in his use of language when speaking to predominantly Muslim audiences about jihad.  Therefore, any damages award would have been nil or nominal: [372].  In addition, even if he had found that the statements complained of bore the wider meaning for which Mr Begg contended, his conclusions would have been the same: [373].

The press summary and judgment are available here. 

Andrew Caldecott QC and Jane Phillips, instructed by the BBC Litigation Department, represented the BBC

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