In February 2020, the Media and Communications Court handed down its judgment in a preliminary trial on the issue of meaning in a libel claim brought by the Premier League footballer Mamadou Sakho against the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). Sophie Lalor-Harbord looks at this case.

Mr Sakho (and his image rights company, MS Top Limited) allege that WADA is liable for negligence and defamation in connection with anti-doping proceedings brought against him in 2016. Mr Sakho was ultimately found not to have committed an anti-doping violation.

The primary publications that are the focus of the footballer’s libel claim are two emails sent by WADA’s media relations and communications manager to journalists at The Telegraph and The Guardian. Information from the emails was republished widely in articles published by those newspapers.

The issues that the court had to determine were: (1) whether the meaning of the articles (in addition to the emails) should be determined; (2) the meaning of each of the emails; and, if applicable, (3) the meaning of each of the articles.

The judge held that the meanings of the articles were relevant to the determination of whether publication of the words complained of “has caused or is likely to cause serious harm to” Mr Sakho’s reputation.

On the question of meaning, the judge determined that:

  1. the primary meaning of both emails was that Mr Sakho had been guilty of taking a prohibited performance-enhancing substance; and
  2. the primary meaning of both articles was that Mr Sakho had been absolved of taking a prohibited performance-enhancing substance.
    This case yet again shows how important and nuanced determining the meanings of statements is in defamation cases. Also, it may not just be the meanings of original publications that are decided upon by the court, but also the meanings of republications.

The case will now proceed to trial against WADA. If it is found to be liable, it will be interesting to see how the court deals with the difficult task of quantifying future football earnings. Mr Sakho is claiming more than £13m in losses on the basis that the anti-doping proceedings were responsible for his move away from Liverpool FC.



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