Setback for Armstrong in Times libel battle

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Roger Pearson
 
Lance Armstrong, the man regarded as probably the
greatest cyclist the world has ever known following his seventh win in
the Tour de France, today suffered a rare defeat, not on the cycle
track, but at London’s Court of Appeal.
 
Three of the country’s top judges ruled in a test
case decision that the Sunday Times was entitled to argue that a story
containing allegations that he had taken performance enhancing drugs
was privileged on the basis of the so-called “Reynolds Defence” in that
it was in the public interest and they had a duty to publish it.
 
The Court also ruled that when the case comes to
court the paper can after all argue a number of points which it says
justify publication of the story. 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 their claims that the
allegations which had originally been made in a book were a matter of
public interest and in those circumstances they were under a duty to
publish them and were protected from being sued for libel.
 
It had argued that one of the country’s senior
defamation judges, Mr Justice David Eady, had been wrong to strike out
their claim that what they published was “privileged” and that they
were therefore protected from being sued.
 
However, Lord Justice Brooke said today that
“fairness” demanded that the merits of the papers claims that they were
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 allegations were made in a book
by David Walsh.
 
In the High Court ruling that has now been
overturned, the judge had said : “I cannot see that the defendants
could be said to be under a duty to publish allegations to the effect
that Mr Armstrong had probably taken performance enhancing drugs or
that, given his prowess in the Tour de France, he ‘must’ have done so.
 
“I would readily accept, of course, that the use
of forbidden drugs in sport is a matter of public concern. It is a
different question, however, from whether or not they were under a duty
to publish these allegations, about this claimant, without at least
affording him an opportunity for of giving a measured response.”

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