Judge refuses to delay libel case against Channel 4

By Roger Pearson

One of the country’s senior libel judges has refused to delay a
libel action against Channel 4 and warned claimants against using
defamation proceedings as a tactical deterrent.

The judge’s comments came after a bid by Dr Andrew Wakefield to put
his pending claim against Channel 4 on ice pending the outcome of
General Medical Council proceedings against him.

Dr Wakefield is
suing Channel Four over a Dispatches programme, broadcast on 18
November last year and entitled “MMR (What They Didn’t Tell You.)”

He
claims the content of the programme alleged he had spread fear the
measles mumps rubella (MMR) vaccine might lead to autism, even though
his own laboratory had carried out tests which contradicted his own
claims.

He also claims the programme indicated he acted
dishonestly and for mercenary motives in that he planned a rival
vaccine that could have made his fortune, said the judge. Channel Four
pleads justification, qualified privilege and fair comment in its
defence.

The judge commented : “The allegations are thus very
serious indeed and concern matters of considerable legitimate public
interest and concern.”

Mr Justice Eady said it was not just the
claimant who would be expected to want an action to be dealt with
swiftly. “It is important to these defendants that the validity of the
case which they wish to answer should be tested promptly and openly.
These considerations have a special resonance in the context of
investigative journalism.

“There would surely be a considerable
‘chilling effect’ impinging upon a journalist’s rights under Article 10
of the European Convention if, when he is sued for defamation with a
view to the protection of a claimant’s Article 8 rights, he is to be
frustrated in putting forward his defence for any significant period of
time.”

He said it had been argued that Dr. Wakefield had sought
to adopt a strategy comparable to that generally characterised by the
phrase ‘gagging writ’ – that there was “a consistent pattern of using
the existence of libel proceedings, albeit stayed, as a tool for
stifling further criticism or debate.”

Refusing bid to stay the
proceedings Mr Justice Eady said he was quite satisfied that Dr
Wakefield wished to extract whatever advantage he could from the
existence of the proceedings while not wishing to progress them or to
give the defendants an opportunity of meeting the claims.

“I have
come to the conclusion that the interests of the administration of
justice require that the Channel 4 proceedings should not be stayed
pending the outcome of the GMC proceedings.”

Kevin Sutcliffe,
commissioning editor, news & current affairs, Channel 4 said:”We
are pleased with the Judge’s decision to dismiss Dr Wakefield’s
application to stay the proceedings and we share the concerns raised by
the Court that the existence of libel proceedings should not be used
for tactical advantage by Dr Wakefield, or to deter other criticism,
while not progressing the action.

“We stand by the Dispatches
programme at the heart of these proceedings. The film was one of the
standout pieces of investigative journalism from the past year into an
important area of public interest and we will continue to robustly
defend this claim.”

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