A landmark decision from the House of Lords has upheld the right of UK journalists to publish untrue stories on a matter of public interest if they can prove they acted responsibly.
It may have finally set in stone the so-called Reynolds libel defence first established in 1999 by the Sunday Times versus Albert Reynolds House of Lords ruling – but which has been thrown into question by more recent judgments. It was most notably rejected in the case of George Galloway versus the Daily Telegraph this year.
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Wednesday’s decision follows a four-year legal fight in the case of Jameel versus Wall Street Journal Europe.
The Wall Street Journal said it was a “landmark decision that will free investigative journalism from threats of libel”.
The Wall Street Journal appealed against a High Court decision, later supported by three Court of Appeal judges, that it should pay £40,000 damages to billionaire Saudi car dealer, Mohammed Jameel.
He sued over a 6 February 2002 front page story headlined: “Saudi Officials Monitor Certain Bank Accounts”.
It claimed that bank accounts associated with a number of prominent Saudi citizens, including Jameel’s family and its businesses, had been monitored by Saudi authorities at the request of U.S. authorities to ensure that no money was going to support terrorists.
The Wall Street Journal argued that it published Jameel's name, amongst others, “not to accuse the plaintiffs in this case of terrorist involvement, but to show that the Saudis were co-operating with the U.S. in the war on terror.”
The Wall Street journal said it could not prove the truth of the story because “sources in Riyadh were afraid of reprisals from Saudi authorities if they testified" but the said it had been confirmed by confidential US sources.
High Court judge Eady J previously ruled the story was not in the public interest because it breached an agreement between the US and Saudi government to keep the monitoring secret.
But today the Law Lords ruled: “It is no part of the duty of the press to co-operate with any government, let alone foreign governments, whether friendly or not, in order to keep from the public information of public interest the disclosure of which cannot be said to be damaging to national interests.”
They went on to rule that The Wall Street Journal Europe had been entitled to publish the story, despite its defamation of Jameel, to show the extent of Saudi co-operation on the war on terror.
Crucially, the judges ruled that the Reynolds defence, as used by the WSJ, held firm.
The five Law Lords were unanimous in their ruling.
The leading judgment by Lord Hoffman, said: “The thrust of the article as a whole was to inform the public that the Saudis were co-operating with the US Treasury and monitoring accounts. It was a serious contribution in measured tone to a subject of very considerable importance.”
He went on to say that although it could not be proved true: “In the nature of things, the existence of covert surveillance by the highly secretive Saudi authorities would be impossible to prove by evidence in open court. That does not necessarily mean that it did not happen.”
He said the newspaper was entitled to report even serious defamations against individuals, so long as they “made a real contribution to the public interest element in the article”.
The ruling also said that judges, with “leisure and hindsight” should not second-guess editorial decisions made in busy newsrooms”.
Lord Hoffmann said: “The question in each case is whether the defendant behaved fairly and responsibly in gathering and publishing the information.”
Baroness Hale said: “We need more such serious journalism in this country and our defamation law should encourage rather than discourage it.”
Geoffrey Robertson QC for the Wall Street Journal said: “The decision provides the media in Britain with an increased freedom to publish newsworthy stories. This is not a license for irresponsible journalism: It frees serious investigative journalism from the chilling effect of libel actions, so long as the treatment is not sensational and the editorial behaviour is responsible.
"It will enable, and indeed encourage, editors to place more information into the public domain than at present. The decision is an important step in moving freedom of speech closer to that enjoyed by the U.S. media under the First Amendment.
“The ruling also frees investigative journalists, authors and broadcasters to publish and defend stories without danger to their sources, especially sources at risk of human rights abuse. The media – the fourth estate – has tended to be reactive rather than proactive.
"This decision should usher in a new role for the media, enabling authors and journalists to make a genuine contribution to public knowledge rather than parroting back what they are told, often in partisan fashion, by police or politicians.”
Paul Steiger, managing editor of The Wall Street Journal, said: “Quality journalism wins out. The Wall Street Journal has long championed the right of its reporters and editors to deliver unbiased facts to its readers without fear of prejudice or recrimination. The ruling in this case supports the importance of the kind of investigative journalism for which the Journal is renowned around the world.”