The country’s senior libel judge has thrown new light on the criteria necessary if the ‘Reynolds Defence’of privilege is to succeed in libel actions.
Mr Justice David Eady has left no doubt that in cases where papers believe a piece should be published in the public interest, they must do all they can to achieve a balance by getting both sides of the story.
The latest guidance comes in a case in which Dewsbury and Mirfield MP, Shahid Malik, sued Newspost Ltd, which publishes the Dewsbury Press and its editor Danny Lockwood over allegations which he claimed branded him among other things as a ‘racist and a dangerous extremist who is unfit to hold public office as an MP”.
The allegations were contained first in a letter by local Conservative councillor Jonathan Scott and later in an article in the Dewsbury Press. In addition to suing the paper, Malik, who also claimed the articles indicated that he organised and directed gangs of Asian thugs to disrupt the voting in Dewsbury South council elections, is suing Scott as well.
The case was the subject of a two-week libel trial in November which culminated with a hung jury. This latest ruling came as part of new proceedings which could lead to a second trial.
In a preliminary hearing, Mr Justice Eady said: ‘There is no doubt that the subject matter of these publications is of public interest. Allegations of undermining the democratic process, including by intimidation, are very serious indeed.’
But he added: ‘As is well-established, however, that alone does not mean that it is in the public interest to publish any such allegations irrespective of their truth or falsity.”
He said that, while he was prepared to accept that the reporter who wrote the story had tried to contact Malik on his mobile phone, he had not left a message or made any other attempt to establish contact through Malik’s offices in Dewsbury or Westminster.