Fight the good fight? the dangers of repeating a libel

One would expect an august broadsheet such as The Guardian to be familiar with the advice of playwright Henrik Ibsen: "One should never put on one’s best trousers to go out to battle for freedom and truth". But the editor, like many before (and no doubt to come), was so exasperated by losing a libel trial in 1998 that he published his support of the paper’s "responsible and careful piece of journalism" and chastised m’learned friends for the law of libel’s rules, which failed to offer any legal privilege to protect against defeat.

Unfortunately, the criticisms repeated the libel that the paper had just been ordered to pay £15,000 damages over! As the newspaper heads back to court, there is a lesson for editors and leader writers.

In January 1997, one of the UK’s highest-profile campaigners against cults was defamed by a Guardian article. Graham Baldwin, director of Catalyst Charity, sued.

In its report the following day, editor Alan Rusbridger said the paper would appeal against the verdict (it did not). Rusbridger said that it was a sad reflection on the libel laws that they offer so little protection to reporting matters which he believed were clearly in the public interest.

Ding, ding. Round two. Mr Baldwin sued again, contending that the effect of the second article was to undermine the vindication he had won from the jury for the first and reassert various defamatory allegations. The newspaper tried to argue that qualified privilege applied on the basis that the second article was a matter of public interest that The Guardian was under a social or moral duty to publish. They also argued that the editor was entitled to protection because he had been replying to an attack (comments by the claimant’s counsel in court) upon the journalists responsible for the 1997 article.

But last month, Judge Eady determined that The Guardian could not rely upon qualified privilege and attempts to push the boundaries of press freedom ever wider, by reference of Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, failed. Rusbridger’s right to express his views is no different from that of any other citizen said the judge.

The Press Complaints Commission’s Code of Practice requires that a newspaper or periodical must report fairly and accurately the outcome of an action for defamation to which it has been a party.

The part played by The Guardian in the destruction of liar Jonathan Aitken, and by the News of the World and Daily Star in the humiliation (and earlier enrichment) of perjurer Jeffrey Archer, may encourage editors to return to the sites of defeats in the libel courts. However, Mr Baldwin’s second claim serves as a reminder that if one repeats untruths (or even allegations a publisher is unable to back up) a claimant may well be entitled to a second bite of the cherry and, damages wise, land a knockout punch. So an editor who attacks m’learned friends and their laws should take Ibsen’s advice and put on an old pair of trousers!

 

Duncan Lamont is a partner in the

media group at Charles Russell

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