Times to pay libel damages for preview article outside its paywall

The Times has agreed to pay libel damages for the meaning of a preview article which it published on its website promoting the full article published behind its paywall (and in print).  The text and image in the preview made a “libelous imputation” about Sultan Choudhury OBE, the former chief executive of an Islamic bank.

The article, published on August 5 2019, was headlined "Female Circumcision is like clipping a nail, claimed speaker", and was published to readers who did not have access to the paywall with a photograph of Sultan Choudhury OBE.

The full article, visible only to subscribers, explained that the quote in the headline was attributed to a former speaker at the Al-Kauthur Institute, of which Mr Choudhury was previously an unpaid director.

This abbreviated version of the article was published on The Times’ unrestricted website and was also promoted on the Times' Twitter feed.

It was contended that the positioning of his name and picture alongside the headline was “misleading and libelous”. The false inference was that it was Mr Choudhury who had made comments about Female Genital Mutilation. Saracens Solicitors, representing Mr Choudhury, said he has never made these comments and personally finds them abhorrent.

Mr Choudhury originally complained to IPSO. The Times rejected the complaint on the basis that the preview article was not a “publication with a distinct meaning … to viewers without access to the … paywall” because they argued it was a “self-evidently incomplete version of a longer article”. The Times claimed that “there is no difference of principle between our client’s paywall, and an article which starts on the front page of a hard copy newspaper and which is visible on a newsstand, but where the bulk of the story is included in the inside pages”. They asserted that to complain about the meaning of the preview article was “wrong in law and has been rejected by the courts”.

Mr Choudhury then instructed Saracens Solicitors and Mark Henderson of Doughty Street to pursue a defamation claim against The Times. He also included claims for misuse of private information and GDPR breaches.

In his defamation claim, Mr Choudhury contended that a publisher was not entitled to rely, for context, on a link to the full article which the ordinary Internet user was prevented from accessing because it was behind a paywall. The Times subsequently made an unqualified offer of amends under the Defamation Act 1996.

Mr Choudhury stated that as a result of the publication, he has been subjected to public censure including numerous hateful online comments. This has caused Mr Choudhury and his family huge distress particularly as his wife is a GP who deals with the everyday consequences of illegal FGM in her work.

Pursuant to the agreement that The Times has reached with Mr Choudhury, the preview article now starts with a notice that it has been amended “following publication of a clarification and apology to Sultan Choudhury” in order to ensure that the apology is signposted to non-subscribers.

The apology has been published by The Times both online and in its print edition, which includes the following:

“…we reported that a speaker at the Institute, Mr Assim al-Hakim had expressed views on female genital mutilation (Female circumcision is like clipping a nail, claimed speaker, 5 August 2019). This headline appeared above a picture of Mr Sultan Choudhury in the online edition. Any impression that those views were his was not intended. Mr Choudhury did not say that “Female circumcision is like clipping a nail” (as explained in the full version of the article published in print and online). The article explained that he did not support any alleged extremist views. We apologise for any distressed caused to Mr Choudhury and have agreed to pay him compensation and legal costs.” 

Mr Choudhury was represented by Mark Henderson of Doughty Street Chambers and Abtin Yeganeh & Nishtar Saleem of Saracens Solicitors.

Read more on the story from Saracens Solicitors here.

Media coverage: Press Gazette, Inpublishing, PA Media Lawyer (paywall), The Guardian.