Stothard welcomes new ruling on Loutchansky

Stothard: "delighted" with result

The Times has notched up what could be a significant legal victory, paving the way for a major new libel defence. The Appeal Court has ruled that a judge who found that the paper was not under "a duty" to the public to publish a libellous article must think again.

And in doing so, the court, headed by the Master of the Rolls, Lord Phillips, has made it clear that a defence of qualified privilege may now be open to papers if they can satisfy courts that they were under such a duty to publish.

However, the case is now likely to go to the House of Lords in a bid to gain a definitive ruling clarifying how far this extension of the defence goes. Times editor Peter Stothard said he was "delighted" with the outcome.

"The House of Lords at last has a chance to produce some legal guidance for editorial freedom and public interest that is both practical for journalists and suitable for the modern world," he said.

"The court made an important step today in putting the public interest first in judging the decisions of journalists. The House of Lords now has an opportunity to finish the job.’ The landmark ruling centred on findings that the paper libelled Tashkent-born international businessman Dr Grigori Loutchansky in articles accusing him of being the boss of a major Russian criminal organisation involved in money-laundering.

The Appeal Court heard that The Times claimed it was "the duty of a free press to communicate to the public at large information regarding matters of public interest and that there was a corresponding interest on the part of members of the public in receiving such information." The Times argued that when this was the case the defence of qualified privilege should be available.

Its argument that the subject matter at the centre of the libel action was of the greatest general importance to the public at large and to their readers in particular was rejected in the High Court by Mr Justice Grey.

The Appeal Court judges decided this week, however, that Mr Justice Grey must think again. They said he had applied the wrong legal test in deciding whether there was a duty on The Times to publish.

Editor Peter Stothard said he was particularly pleased that the court felt it was unlikely that the paper would be forced to apologise to Loutchansky.

"Loutchansky, who is excluded from the United Kingdom on the grounds that his presence here would not be conducive to the public good, has been vigorously pursuing The Times for an apology in respect of journalism about him that we have always held to be responsible and in the public interest. I am delighted that the Court of Appeal has said that ‘we do not think that there is any prospect of the judge ordering them [The Times] to publish an apology’."

The court dismissed The Times’s libel defence of "archive privilege", which involved the date the story was posted on the paper’s website.

By Roger Pearson

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