Judges rule Sunday Times can use public interest defence in libel case

By Roger Pearson

Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong has suffered a rare defeat –
not on the cycle track, but at the Court of Appeal in London.

Three judges have ruled that The Sunday Times is entitled to argue
in a libel trial that a story alleging the US cyclist had taken
performance enhancing drugs was privileged.

The argument rests on
the so-called “Reynolds defence”, in which a paper can claim that it
had a duty to publish in the public interest.

The judges also
ruled that when the case comes to court the paper can, after all, argue
a number of points which it says justify publication. The High Court
had earlier struck these out as well, along with the public interest
defence.

The Sunday Times had challenged a High Court ruling last
December in which a judge rejected claims that the allegations, which
had originally been made in a book, were a matter of public interest,
and that in those circumstances the paper had a duty to publish them
and was protected from being sued for libel.

It had argued that
one of the country’s senior defamation judges, Mr Justice Eady, had
been wrong to strike out the paper’s claim that what it published was
“privileged” and that it was therefore protected from being sued.

However,
Lord Justice Brooke said that fairness demanded that the merits of the
paper’s claims – that it was under a duty to publish the article in the
public interest – should be properly investigated at a full hearing of
the case and not struck out as the High Court judge had done.

The original allegations were made in a book by David Walsh.

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