Libel landmark: Fair comment now 'honest comment'

An obscure libel dispute between a booking agency and a covers band has resulted in the Supreme Court issuing a ruling today that significantly enhances the fair comment defence for the internet age, renaming it "honest comment".

Current UK libel law states that the defence of fair comment in libel cases relates to "honestly held opinion based on provable facts". But according to David Price, the defence lawyer in the case, today's ruling reduces the emphasis on publishers to prove the facts upon which their comment is made.

The case arose after the members of musical act The Gillettes signed up with Jason Spiller and 1311 Events in 2004. Spiller dropped The Gillettes (Craig and Jason Joseph) after a dispute over bookings, and posted the following statement online:

"1311 Events is no longer able to accept bookings for this artist as the Gillettes c/o Craig Joseph are not professional enough to feature in our portfolio and have not been able to abide by the terms of their contract."

This led The Gillettes to sue for libel. In April 2009, they issued an application for summary judgment and in May, Mr Justice Eady ruled that the defence of 'fair comment'could be struck out.

This decision was upheld by the Court of Appeal but was further challenged at the Supreme Court, which today reinstated the fair comment defence in this case.

In his comments on the judgment Lord Walker said: '…the defence of fair comment (now to be called honest comment) originated in a narrow form in a society very different from today's.

'It was a society in which writers, artists and musicians were supposed to place their works, like wares displayed at market, before a relatively small educated and socially elevated class, and it was in the context of published criticism of their works that the defence developed.

'Millions now talk, and thousands comment in electronically transmitted words, about recent events of which they have learned from television or the internet.

'Many of the events and the comments on them are no doubt trivial and ephemeral, but from time to time (as the present appeal shows) libel law has to engage with them. The test for identifying the factual basis of honest comment must be flexible enough to allow for this type of case, in which a passing reference to the previous night's celebrity show would be regarded by most of the public, and may sometimes have to be regarded by the law, as a sufficient factual basis."

Spiller's solicitor David Price said today: 'The practical effect of today's judgment is the removal of the necessity to provide a full factual basis for opinions expressed when relying on a defence of fair comment.

"No longer is it incumbent on the defendant to provide the facts on which the comment is based in sufficient detail so as to leave the reader in a position to judge for himself how far the comment was well-founded. In recognition of this the Supreme Court has re-named the defence from 'fair comment' to 'honest comment'."

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