Case Law: Starr v Ward, Justification defence succeeds in Freddie Starr’s “groping” libel claim

12 07 2015

Starr WardThe libel claim brought by entertainer Freddie Starr against Karin Ward has been dismissed by Mr Justice Nicol following an eight day trial.  In a judgment handed down on 10 July 2015 ([2015] EWHC 1987 (QB)) the judge held that the allegations made by Ms Ward concerning Mr Starr’s conduct at a recording of a Jimmy Savile TV programme in 1974 were true.

Background

Ms Ward had a troubled background including being a victim of sexual assault by her step father.  When she was 14 she was send to Duncroft Approved School. He evidence was that when she was there she and other girls were abused by Jimmy Savile.

When she was aged 15 Ms Ward attended the filming of a television programme featuring Jimmy Savile, called “Clunk Click”.  Mr Starr was one of the guests on the programme.  He was then aged 32.

After the programme was recorded the defendant was in the “Green Room” with Jimmy Savile and Mr Starr. She said that Mr Starr felt her bottom and then made a crude remark.  Mr Starr denied touching her or saying anything humiliating.

Ms Ward wrote an account of some of the incidents on a website called “Fanstory” in 2008 but did not mention Mr Starr by name.

On 14 November 2011 Ms Ward was interviewed by Liz MacKean of the BBC for a programme about Jimmy Savile which was never broadcast.

On 2 October 2012 she gave an interview to Mark Williams-Thomas who was preparing a programme on Jimmy Savile for ITV. Ms Ward said in her interview, the following:

“I was horribly, horribly humiliated by Freddie Starr who had a very bad attack of wandering hands and had groped me and I didn’t like him because he smelled like my step-father and it frightened me and freaked me out and I rebuffed him and he humiliated me in front of everyone in the dressing room” (“the ITV Words”).

These words were not broadcast but the following day a news editor at ITN emailed Mr Starr’s solicitor and asked him to respond to the allegation that Mr Starr had groped and humiliated a 14 year old girl in Jimmy Savile’s changing room in the 1970s.

Mr Starr’s solicitor responded that the allegation was false.  The same day Mr Starr applied for an interim injunction which was granted by Cox J but discharged by Tugendhat J the following day.

Mr Starr then gave media interviews in which he denied meeting Ms Ward, let alone groping her. He also denied being with Jimmy Savile on BBC premises. However, on 8 October 2012 Channel 4 News obtained footage of the episode of ‘Clunk Click’ which had been filmed on 7 March 1974. Mr Starr could be seen as one of the guests on the show. Ms Ward could be seen in the audience on the set.

On 8 October 2012, Channel 4 News broadcast part of the interview which Mr Williams-Thomas had conducted with the Defendant on 2 October 2012 and which included the ITV words.

The natural and ordinary meaning which Mr Starr attributed to the ITV words was that he was a paedophile who had groped and thereby sexually assaulted the Defendant when she was a schoolgirl and that he had humiliated and frightened her.

Mr Starr also complained about words broadcast on the BBC Panorama programme and about an eBook written and published by Ms Ward.  The eBook contained the following words

“One particular celebrity, a very popular comedian of the time, whom I shall simply refer to as ‘F’, absolutely stank of old sweat and the same cologne my step-father used to use. His hands wandered incessantly; he had absolutely no qualms whatever about any one of the girls seeing what he was doing to any of the others. The fact that we sat in JS’s dressing room with both of them, being encouraged to drink vodka, gin or Bacardi rum whilst they blatantly selected which girl to humiliate amazes me”.

Mr Starr alleged that these words meant that he was a paedophile with a sexual liking for underage girls; that he groped and thereby sexually assaulted underage girls; that he, with Jimmy Savile, encouraged a group of underage girls to drink alcohol while blatantly choosing which of them to humiliate; and that he humiliated Ms Ward in front of other girls.

Ms Ward disputed the meanings attributed to the various words complained of by Mr Starr.  In the alternative, she said that the words we true in the meanings she set out.  In the alternative she relied on Reynolds qualified privilege or common law qualified privilege.

The trial took place on 15-19 and 22-24 June 2015. The Judge heard evidence from Mr Starr and Susan Bunce who was at school with Ms Ward and was present on 7 March 1974.  He also heard evidence from Ms Ward and a number of other witnesses including Witness C, another girl who had been at school with Ms Ward and had been present at the recording.

Judgment

The Judge refused an application to extend time for suing for slander but gave Mr Starr permission to amend his Particulars of Claim in relation to the ITV words which he held were actionable without proof of special damage.

The Judge held that the ITV words meant that Mr Starr had groped and thereby sexually assaulted a fourteen year old schoolgirl who he had also humiliated and frightened her.

The first defence relied on by Ms Ward was justification (truth).   Her evidence was that the allegations were true.  She said that Mr Starr had “goosed” her and she recoiled and made a fuss.  She said that, at that point, Mr Starr said “’I wouldn’t touch you anyway. You’re a titless wonder.'” [98] She said she was frightened and humiliated.

Mr Starr said that nothing of the kind happened.  He had not touched Ms Ward and had said nothing of the kind she attributed to him.  He had, however, initially denied that he had ever appeared on television with Jimmy Savile.  The Judge concluded that Mr Star had “very little, if any, recollection of that night” [99].

The Judge considered the evidence of the parties, Ms Bunce and Witness X and concluded that Ms Ward’s account was true (see [110]).  He therefore concluded that Ms Ward had

“proved that it was true that he groped her (an under-age school girl) and humiliated her by calling her a ‘titless wonder’. His behaviour and smell also frightened her because it reminded her of her step-father who had sexually abused her as a child. Because her words were true, this claim fails” [125].

Because the defence of justification was a complete answer to the claim, the Judge said it was not necessary for him to consider the alternative defence of Reynolds – although he recorded that Malik v Newspost Ltd [2007] EWHC 3063 (QB) would have been a formidable obstacle to this.

The claim in relation to the eBook was dismissed on Jameel grounds as the number of copies sold in the jurisdiction was very small.

As a result, judgment was entered for Ms Ward and Mr Starr was ordered to pay her costs.

Comment

This case has been controversial because of the circumstances in which the libels were published.  Ms Ward was the first of Jimmy Savile’s victims to speak publicly about what happened.  Mr Starr was mentioned only in passing.  In relation to his “groping”, Ms Ward said that she “never complained about it because it was acceptable at the time .. The only thing I complained about was that he called me a ‘titless wonder’ in a room full of people.”

However, the fact that the incident took place in the presence of Jimmy Savile made it newsworthy.  Ms Ward’s comments were broadcast by ITV and the BBC.  Mr Starr chose not to sue them but brought proceedings only against her.  Ms Ward was understandably upset that the broadcasters did not provide her with any support in her defence of the claim.

Although the case gave rise to a number of complex procedural issues it turned  on witness evidence as to what had taken place in over a few minutes in the “Green Room” in 1974.

Mr Starr’s position was always going to be difficult after his initial denial that he had ever appeared on “Clunk Click” was disproved.  It appeared that he Mr Starr had little or no recollection of the incident.  Although, 40 years later, the memories of all the witnesses were hazy, there was a formidable body of evidence to support Ms Ward’s case.  It was common ground that a group of 15 year old schoolgirls were in the room with Mr Starr and Jimmy Savile and in the circumstances, the inference that inappropriate touching took place was, perhaps, inevitable.

Ms Ward was able to obtain legal representation from David Price Solicitors and Advocates – apparently under a defendant’s conditional fee agreement.  Mr Starr will now be liable to pay very substantial legal costs and is said to “face financial ruin

Finally, it should be noted that this is only the fourth libel trial of 2015.  Like the others (Rai v BholowasiaAsghar & Anor v Ahmad & OrsMa v St George’s Healthcare NHS Trust) this was not a case against the mainstream media.  There has not been a trial of such a claim since the Mitchell case in November 2014.


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