Libel trial judge issues new privilege guidance

One of the country’s top libel judges has issued new guidance about
when a defendant can plead qualified privilege, following a case
involving the BBC.

The case focused on a BBC West broadcast on
the outcome of an inquiry into allegations that waiting-list figures
had been falsified at the Weston General Hospital NHS Trust.

In
the piece by Matthew Hill, who had been the health correspondent for
the BBC in the West of England since 1995, Marion Henry – the trust’s
facilities and administration manager – was mentioned by name.

The
report on a Points West early evening news bulletin included comments
by former trust worker Michele Masson that identified Henry and two
others as allegedly responsible for covering up the removal of patients
from the trust’s waiting lists.

Henry launched libel proceedings and the BBC attempted to plead qualified privilege and justification in its defence.

However,
the BBC failed to win the go-ahead to plead qualified privilege when Mr
Justice Gray ruled that, while the subject matter of the report in
question was a matter of public interest, it was not necessary for a
health service official in it to be identified by name.

The
recent High Court hearing focused entirely on the issue of whether the
BBC was entitled to mount a defence of qualified privilege.

Examining
the legal arguments put forward by the BBC, the judge said that he
considered the bulletin had been “so heavily laden with editorial
comment”

that it did not qualify for statutory qualified privilege protection under the provisions of the Defamation Act 1966.

Mr Justice Gray concluded that it was not necessary for Henry to be named and that the broadcast was not privileged.

“There
is simply too much in the broadcast which is plainly not reportage of
the kind which the Act is designed to protect,” he added.

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