Inventor Sir James Dyson sues UK broadcaster Channel 4 for libel

Billionaire says news programme made him appear complicit in abuse of workers in Malaysia

FILE - In this Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2011 file photo, Inventor James Dyson launches the Dyson DC41 Ball vacuum and the Dyson Hot heater fan on in New York. Dyson, the British company best known for groundbreaking vacuum cleaners, is scrapping its electric car project because it doesn’t make business sense. Billionaire founder James Dyson said in an email to employees on Thursday, Oct. 10, 2019 that it was shut down because the company “simply can no longer see a way to make it commercially viable.” (AP Photo/Rob Bennett, file)
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Sir James Dyson has brought a High Court libel claim against Channel 4 over a broadcast which made allegations of abuse and exploitation of workers at a factory which used to supply goods to his firm.

The billionaire is suing the broadcaster as well as Independent Television News (ITN) over the allegations made during Channel 4’s news programme on February 10.

At the first hearing in London on Thursday, the court was told the programme reported on legal action brought against Sir James's company by several workers at a Malaysian factory which previously supplied products to Dyson.

The court was told the programme is estimated to have been seen by millions of viewers and featured interviews with workers at ATA Industrial, who said they faced abuse and “inhuman conditions” at the factory, which manufactured vacuum cleaners and air filters.

Sir James, who is bringing the case alongside companies Dyson Technology and Dyson Limited, claims the broadcast falsely said he and the companies were complicit in systematic abuse and exploitation of workers.

On Thursday, the judge was asked to decide on several preliminary issues in the claim, including whether the two companies were referred to in the broadcast and if the programme defamed them and Sir James.

Hugh Tomlinson KC, for Sir James and the companies, argued that a claimant does not need to be referred to by name for the programme to be defamatory.

Lawyers for Channel 4 rejected the claims that their news programme was defamatory. PA

“What is the broadcast targeting? The broadcast is targeting, we say, Dyson, meaning Sir James and Dyson companies,” he said.

“There is nothing in the broadcast which in any way distances the first claimant [Sir James] from the allegations in the broadcast or dilutes the allegation of complicity,” the barrister added in written submissions.

Mr Tomlinson later said that Channel 4 and ITN’s case was that there was “no suggestion” Sir James had “any knowledge or culpability” of the abuse.

“We say that does not reflect the reality of the position. Sir James Dyson is linked with Dyson by the defendants,” the barrister argued.

He added that the broadcast did not include statements of opinion.

“This is not an opinion programme. It is not a programme where commentators are wheeled out to give their views … It is presented as exclusive revelations in a news programme,” Mr Tomlinson said.

Adam Wolanski KC, for Channel 4 and ITN, argued that the two Dyson companies were not referred to in the programme.

“There is nothing in the words in the broadcast that identifies the second claimant or the third claimant and that is the end of it,” he told the court.

He stated in written submissions that the two companies are “merely two of presumably a large number of corporate entities within a large structure”.

The barrister added that if the two companies were the ones referred to, the programme featured issues of opinion rather than factual allegations against them.

“The broadcast raises the question as to whether Dyson is responsible for abuses of labour rights at a company within its supply chain,” Mr Wolanski said in written submissions.

“This question is inherently recognisable to the viewer as a matter of opinion.”

Mr Wolanski also argued that the broadcast did not defame Sir James, saying in written submissions that there is “no suggestion whatsoever in the broadcast that [he] has any knowledge of or culpability for Dyson’s relationship with its supplier ATA or for any events at ATA itself”.

“Nothing else is said about him after the brief introduction … It is simply not defamatory of him at all,” the barrister told the court.

The judge in the case will give his decision on the preliminary issues in writing at a later date.

Updated: October 06, 2022, 3:52 PM