Robert Dee, dubbed the “World’s Worst Tennis Player” loses…..his libel case against the Daily Telegraph

November 22, 2010

Broadcasting & Media, Defamation

Read the Full case report: http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/QB/2010/924.html

and the Daily Telegraph article about the case: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/sport/tennis/7644181/Worlds-worst-tennis-player-loses-again.html

Robert Dee’s own website contains an extraordinary collection of 40 apologies, corrections and reports from Newspapers that printed the same story as the Daily Telegraph but ultimately settled or offered apologies: http://www.robertdee.org/apologies_and_corrections (indeed he even goes as far as scanning onto the website the cheque for £12,500 that he received from the BBC in damages!)

The case concerns an article published in the 23rd April 2008 Daily Telegraph about Robert Dee, a 23yr old British Tennis Professional. The article suggested on both a paragraph on the front page and on the back page of the sports supplement that Dee had lost 54 matches in a row on the International Professional Circuit and was therefore the “world’s worst tennis professional”.

Dee sued the newspaper for defamation on 21st April 2009, 2 days before the expiry of the 1yr limitation period. His solicitors claimed £500,000(!!!!) and claimed that the front page item could blight his potential future career as a tennis coach [8] as while the claimant had lost these matches, he had had some success in the domestic Spanish league.

The newspaper denied that the article was defamatory, but in the event that it was, it relied upon a fair comment defence.

The Court held that, following Charleston, the key question was whether various (front and back page) articles were “sufficiently closely connected as to be regarded as a single publication” [29], not whether these articles were separate, on multiple pages or written by different authors. Given this, it quickly became apparent that the front and back page articles needed to be taken together. Mrs Justice Sharp DBE did however note at [30] that in reality many people may only have read one of the articles, and it was theoretically possible to argue that in more controversial cases, this issue could be determined at trial.

Whether the article was capable of a defamatory meaning was fairly straightforward, as it could suggest that the claimant lacked talent or “unreasonably and unrealistically persists in a career as a professional tennis player which is an expensive waste of money and doomed to failure” [38]. The problem was in evidencing that this caused Dee to be shunned or avoided. In the end, although the claimant argued that the focus of the complaint was that the article suggested incompetence or a lack of skill, the real complaint was one of exposing Dee to ridicule by making him look “absurdly bad at tennis” [55].

It is worth noting Sharp J’s comments that: “In my view it is not easy to translate these principles to the sporting arena, even though I entirely accept that many sportsmen and sportswomen, and the Claimant is one of them, are professionals who earn their living through their sporting skill, or endeavour to do so. It is difficult to characterise an allegation of relative lack of sporting skill, even if it leads to the bottom of whichever league the person or team participates in as necessarily imputing incompetence, quite apart from the question which could plainly arise as to whether such a suggestion is purely a value judgement. Such as allegation might be said to dent someone’s pride rather than their personal reputation, depending of course on the context. In every race, match or other sporting event, someone has to come last: that is the nature of competitive sport. Losing in sport is, as Mr Price [Defendant Counsel] submits, an occupational hazard” [49].

Sharp J was also highly critical of the suggestions both that the article could affect a future career as a coach at some unspecified time in the future because of the paper’s criticism of his athletic ability [53], and of the claimant’s pleaded case. Indeed at [58], She states that a claimant must “state clearly what his case is so the relevant issues are properly delineated in advance of trial and so the defendant has a proper opportunity to defend itself against what the complainant is really complaining about.”

The problem the claimant had is that the following, somewhat damning facts, were uncontroversial:

  • The claimant had a run of 54 consecutive defeats during which he did not win one set, in tournaments under the jurisdiction of the ITF and ATP
  • This consecutive run of defeats is a record equalling worst ever run of defeats in such tournaments
  • While the claimant also played (with some success) in domestic Spanish tournaments, these competitions did not directly award World ranking points

When at [109], the Court concluded that the article did draw a distinction between his performance on the international tennis circuit and the Spanish tournaments, the claimant really had no case left. He could not complain about the central facts of the article, as these were effectively true! As such the Defendant was awarded summary judgment, game set and match to the newspaper.

Youtube News Report of Robert’s Tennis Victory (@ 1:26 onwards):

see also a great blog posting on the case from the Jack of Kent: http://jackofkent.blogspot.com/2010/05/libel-and-tennis-trophies-of-robert-dee.html

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About Kris

Associate Professor in Sports Law, Staffordshire University; British Gymnastics Senior Coach

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