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DEFAMATION - Defamatory statements - What constitutes - Interpretation of - Surrounding circumstances - Evidence - Of defamatory words - Practice - Joinder of actions - Multiple defendants

Tuesday, May 23, 2017 @ 7:55 AM  

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Appeal by the National Post, its publisher and three journalists from a finding that they were jointly liable to Weaver in defamation for four articles published in the National Post in late 2009 and early 2010. Weaver was a University of Victoria professor and a climate change activist. During a December 2009 interview with a Globe and Mail journalist, Weaver referenced break-ins and attempted computer hackings that had occurred at his office and the offices of his colleagues, while expressing the view that some in the fossil fuel industry engaged in a disinformation campaign aimed at undermining the science of climate change. His remarks were made in response to questions from the journalist about who might benefit from propagating disinformation and discrediting climate science. The National Post publisher, reading the Globe article and watching a related news broadcast, asked a National Post journalist to write an article critical of Weaver’s claims. Two articles referencing Weaver as having blamed the oil industry for the break-in at his office and other crimes were published in the National Post in December 2009. Weaver was busy with the end of the school term and tried to ignore the articles. He was interviewed by another publication in January 2010. The resulting article contained statements Weaver considered misleading about his call for the resignation of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) chairman and the need to overhaul its approach to science. The National Post seized on the allegations and published another article about the IPCC being in disarray, in which it was suggested that Weaver intended to exit the IPCC. In February 2010, the National Post published a fourth article mentioning Weaver’s alleged attempt to distract from the science behind climate change advocacy by making allegations of misconduct on the part of those in the oil industry. The judge in Weaver’s defamation action concluded that the articles, read together, were defamatory because they supported inferences that Weaver was professionally incompetent, deceitful and unethical. In making this conclusion, the judge analyzed the meanings and effect of the four articles in combination. She rejected the defendants’ submission that each article had to be treated independently and that each author was only liable for the article they wrote.

HELD: Appeal allowed and new trial ordered. It was open to the judge to attribute an imputation of bad character and dishonesty to Weaver to each article. She did not provide an adequate explanation for adopting a combined approach to determining the meanings of the articles. The articles had different authors. There was no pleading of conspiracy or concerted action on the part of the defendants. Her erroneous approach to the combined defamatory meanings was pervasive and inextricable from her individual findings of defamation against each of the defendants.

Weaver v. Corcoran, [2017] B.C.J. No. 752, British Columbia Court of Appeal, R.J. Bauman C.J.B.C., H. Groberman and G. Dickson JJ.A., April 21, 2017. Digest No. TLD-May222017002