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Britain’s high court makes libel laws friendlier to media

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NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   GREAT BRITAIN   ·   Libel   ·   Oct. 12, 2006

NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   GREAT BRITAIN   ·   Libel   ·   Oct. 12, 2006

Britain’s high court makes libel laws friendlier to media

  • Great Britain’s House of Lords held this week that the public interest and responsible journalism can protect media defendants against libel judgments.

Oct. 12, 2006  ·   A unanimous ruling from Great Britain’s highest court will make it easier for journalists and media companies to defend themselves when they are sued for libel in the U.K.

A panel of five judges from within Britain’s House of Lords decided Wednesday that if a media defendant can show that an article or broadcast is of public importance and that the journalists were responsible in their newsgathering and reporting, a plaintiff cannot recover libel damages.

The judges, called Law Lords, ruled that The Wall Street Journal Europe satisfactorily established that the article in question — a story about the monitoring of Saudi bank accounts for potential terrorist activity after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks — was both of public interest and written responsibly. As a result, the plaintiff, a Saudi billionaire who was named in the article, was unable to recover damages for libel.

In the decision, the Law Lords emphasized that judges should look at the opinion as a whole when making their determination, and not just the defamatory statements standing alone.

In his opinion, Lord Hope of Craighead noted that a given “piece of information that, taken on its own, would be gratuitous can change its character entirely when its place in the article read as a whole is evaluated.” He wrote that “[t]he standard of responsible journalism respects the fact that it is the article as a whole that the journalist presents to the public.”

Britain’s libel laws have traditionally favored the plaintiff — so much so, in fact, that plaintiffs often made substantial efforts to sue for libel in Britain when possible, even when a media organization is based in another county. Before Wednesday’s ruling, plaintiffs only had to prove that false statements were published, and the statements were damaging to their reputation in order to prevail.

Wednesday’s decision was good news for American journalists who might be sued in the U.K.

Stuart Karle, an attorney for Dow Jones & Co., which owns the Journal, said that “because U.S. publications can be read on the Internet, there can now be some additional comfort that whenever your articles are read in English-speaking word, if you did a good and careful job, you’re set legally.”

Karle said the new British standard “offers editors the ability to cover difficult stories of public importance and not have to worry about being second-guessed by judges about essentially every decision on reporting.”

In the U.K., “lawyers for the media were acting as censors because they had to,” Karle said. “This puts the authority back in the hands of editors and journalists, who are the right ones to be making these decisions in a free society.”

Libel laws in the United States have long been friendlier to media defendants. A public official or public figure in the United States can only recover damages for libel when defamatory statements are made with “actual malice” — the knowledge that a statement is false, or reckless disregard for whether it is false.

An important difference between the laws in the two countries is that in cases involving public figures or matters of public concern, the burden is on the plaintiff in the United States to prove that the defendant acted with actual malice. In Britain, the media defendants have the burden of proving newsworthiness and responsible reporting. Truth is a defense under both sets of laws.

Also, while American libel law focuses more on the public status of the plaintiff, the new British law focuses on the nature and public importance of the news story.

Law Lord Baroness Hale of Richmond cautioned, however, that the decision “does not mean a free-for-all to publish” without consequence in the U.K.

“There must be some real public interest in having this information in the public domain,” she wrote, adding that “there must be a real public interest in communicating and receiving the information. This is, as we all know, very different from saying that it is information which interests the public.”

(Jameel v. Wall Street Journal Europe; Media Counsel: Geoffrey Robertson, London)ES

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