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James Dyson sues Channel 4 for libel over news report

The Guardian logo The Guardian 06/10/2022 Haroon Siddique Legal affairs correspondent
Photograph: Pierre Suu/Getty Images © Provided by The Guardian Photograph: Pierre Suu/Getty Images

The billionaire businessman James Dyson is attempting to sue Channel 4 over a news report about claims of abuse and exploitation in the Malaysia factory of a former supplier to his firm.

The lead story on Channel 4 News on 10 February suggested Dyson, second on this year’s Sunday Times UK rich list, was complicit in the practices at the ATA-owned factory, the inventor’s lawyer told the high court in London on Thursday.

Hugh Tomlinson KC said the allegations were “remarkably defamatory”. In written submissions, he said: “The main theme of the broadcast is the difference between the fact of ‘Dyson’s image’ which [his firm] seeks to project and protect, and the reality of abuse and exploitation which it (the broadcaster) discloses.

“The broadcaster leaves the viewer in no doubt that there has been very serious wrongs in relation to workers in Malaysia and that Dyson has (at the very least) failed to take action to deal with it.”

The court heard that the report featured interviews with workers said to have “suffered abuse, inhuman work conditions, and in one case, even torture while they were helping to make Dyson products”. The workers, represented by Leigh Day, have launched legal claims against Dyson.

The founder, whose fortune is estimated at £23bn, and two of his UK companies, Dyson Technology Ltd and Dyson Ltd, are suing Channel 4 and the programme’s production company, ITN, for libel over its reporting.

Describing the company, as “well known, in particular, for its innovative vacuum cleaners and ‘air-blade’ hand driers”, Tomlinson told the court: “Nobody disputes that this was taking place at ATA … What’s being alleged is that Dyson is guilty of wrongdoing.”

Thursday’s hearing was concerned with whether the three claimants were entitled to sue and whether the report contained meanings defamatory of the claimants.

The defendants argue that no culpability was attributed to Dyson personally and that neither of the two claimant companies were named in the broadcast.

Adam Wolanski KC, acting for the defendants, said in written arguments: “To the extent that readers [sic] would turn their mind to the question of which particular Dyson entity is being referred to, that entity is far more likely to be understood to be one that is overseas, most likely in Singapore or elsewhere in south-east Asia.”

The inventor announced in 2019 that he was moving his company headquarters from Wiltshire to Singapore.

Wolanski said that even if Mr Justice Nicklin held that the broadcast did refer to any of the claimants, the defendants’ case is that the report contained opinion about the extent of their responsibility for abuses at a company within their supply chain, rather than statements of fact. He added: “Dyson’s denials saturate the programme.”

Nicklin reserved judgment on the preliminary issues.

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