Lords rule in favour of Searchlight in BNP libel appeal

The House of Lords has rejected an appeal by two members of the British National Party against a decision that an article about them in the anti-fascist Searchlight magazine is protected from a defamation action by the reportage defence.

Brothers Barry and Christopher Roberts had petitioned the House of Lords for permission to appeal against the Court of Appeal’s decision upholding the judgment of Mr Justice Eady that the article was protected by the reportage defence.

In their petition to the House of Lords, the Roberts brothers had argued that journalists must always verify allegations of criminal conduct.

The brothers had sued journalist Gerry Gable, Steve Silver, editor of Searchlight magazine, and its publisher, Searchlight Magazine Ltd, over an article which appeared in the magazine in 2003.

It reported a dispute within the BNP, including allegations that Christopher Roberts stole money collected at a BNP rally, and allegations that the claimants made threats to others, and that they might be subject to a police investigation.

Mr Justice Eady upheld the reportage privilege in a decision in May 2006.

In July last year Lord Justice Ward, upholding that decision in the Court of Appeal, said a review of the authorities showed that a journalist had a good defence to a claim for libel if what he published, even without trying to verify its truth, amounted to reportage.

The best description of “reportage” was that it was “the neutral reporting without adoption or embellishment or subscribing to any belief in its truth of attributed allegations of both sides of a political and possibly some other kind of dispute”, he said.

The reportage defence, a form of qualified privilege, was first established in Al-Fagih v HH Saudi Research and Marketing (UK) Ltd.

The House of Lords rejected the Roberts brothers’ petition for permission to appeal on January 31. As is usual, the Law Lords gave no reason for the decision.

Had the petition been granted and appeal gone ahead, it would have been the first time that the House of Lords had considered the reportage defence.

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