What can be gleaned from Jamaican appeal on qualified privilege?

A recent legal victory at the Privy Council for Jamaican newspaper, the Sunday Gleaner, has helped clarify the ambit of "qualified privilege".

The defence protects responsible journalists when a story on a matter of public concern is defamatory and cannot subsequently be shown to be substantially true. This evolving defence was established during the libel action brought by Albert Reynolds against The Sunday Times.

The Gleaner article referred to irregularities in contracts between a Jamaican Government-owned monopoly food importation company and a Belgian milk exporter, and to the sacking of its former managing director. He sued. The newspaper was unable to produce evidence of the irregularities, but argued qualified privilege. He was successful at first instance, but not at the Jamaican Court of Appeal, so he appealed to the Privy Council.

This was a story on a matter of public concern, by virtue of the status of the company, but was it responsible journalism? The general tone of the article was restrained and the journalist had canvassed and printed the view of the managing director. The newspaper had not reported his explanation of his sacking, and the Privy Council took the view that the article did imply that was because of the irregularities. But in their Lordships’ view, when a defamatory meaning is "not so glaringly obvious that this was how the words would be understood by the ordinary responsible reader", the journalist might, in an appropriate case, be given benefit of the qualified privilege defence.

Such was the case here.




Nick Hanbidge is a solicitor with the media team of Theodore Goddard

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