Landmark ruling 'ushers in new role for the media'

A landmark decision from the House of Lords has upheld the right of UK journalists to publish defamatory stories which may not be true if they can prove they acted responsibly.

It may have finally set in stone the Reynolds libel defence first established in 1999 by the Sunday Times versus Albert Reynolds House of Lords ruling — but thrown into question by later judgments.

Wednesday's decision follows a fouryear legal fight in the case of Jameel versus Wall Street Journal Europe.

The Wall Street Journal said it was a "landmark decision that will free investigative journalism from threats of libel".

Billionaire Saudi car dealer Mohammed Jameel originally won £40,000 damages after suing at the High Court over a February 2002 frontpage story headlined: "Saudi Officials Monitor Certain Bank Accounts".

It claimed that bank accounts associated with a number of prominent Saudi citizens, including Jameel, had been monitored by Saudi authorities at the request of the United States to ensure that no money was going to support terrorists.

The WSJ argued that it published Jameel's name, among others, "not to accuse the plaintiffs in this case of terrorist involvement, but to show that the Saudis were co-operating with the US in the war on terror."

The WSJ said it could not prove the truth of the story because "sources in Riyadh were afraid of reprisals from Saudi authorities if they testified" — but they said it had been confirmed by confidential US sources.

High Court judge Justice Eady previously ruled the story was not in the public interest because it breached an agreement between the US and Saudi government to keep the monitoring secret.

But the Law Lords ruled: "It is no part of the duty of the press to co-operate with any government, let alone foreign governments, whether friendly or not, in order to keep from the public information of public interest, the disclosure of which cannot be said to be damaging to national interests."

Crucially, the judges ruled that the Reynolds defence, as used by the WSJ, held firm. The five Law Lords were unanimous in their ruling.

The leading judgment by Lord Hoffman said: "The thrust of the article was to inform the public that the Saudis were co-operating with the US Treasury and monitoring accounts. It was a serious contribution in measured tone to a subject of very considerable importance."

He went on to say that although it could not be proved true: "In the nature of things, the existence of covert surveillance by the highly secretive Saudi authorities would be impossible to prove by evidence in open court. That does not necessarily mean that it did not happen."

He said the newspaper was entitled to report even serious defamations against individuals, so long as they "made a real contribution to the public inThe ruling also said that judges, with "leisure and hindsight" should not second- guess editorial decisions made in "busy newsrooms".

Lord Hoffman said: "The question in each case is whether the defendant behaved fairly and responsibly in gathering and publishing the information."

Baroness Hale said: "We need more such serious journalism in this country, and our defamation law should encourage rather than discourage it."

Geoffrey Robertson, QC for the WSJ, said: "The decision provides the media in Britain with an increased freedom to publish newsworthy stories… "It will enable and encourage editors to place more information into the public domain. The decision is an important step in moving freedom of speech closer to that enjoyed by the US media under the First Amendment.

"This decision should usher in a new role for the media, enabling journalists to make a genuine contribution to public knowledge, rather than parroting back what they are told, often in partisan fashion, by police or politicians."terest element in the article".

 

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