Times loses out in police corruption story libel appeal

An article in which The Times reported that a Metropolitan Police officer was being investigated for corruption is not protected by the Reynolds responsible journalism defence because it included details of allegations against the man, the Court of Appeal held today.

The court – the Master of the Rolls, Lord Neuberger, Lord Justice Moore-Bick and Lord Justice Moses – allowed an appeal by Detective Sergeant Gary Flood against the decision of Mr Justice Tugendhat that the article had a Reynolds privilege defence.

The court also rejected The Times’s appeal against the judge’s finding that web publication of the same story was not protected by Reynolds privilege after the date when the newspaper knew Det Sgt Flood had been cleared by an investigation because it failed either to take the story down or add a note making clear that the situation had changed since the original publication.

The court’s main decision was immediately criticised by media law specialist Mark Stephens, a partner with law firm Finers Stephens Innocent, who said: “It seems to me that this is a very worrying decision, and palpably wrong, and I hope it is dealt with by a higher court or in the legislation which is coming forward.”

The decision would have the effect of reducing detailed reporting of crime and terrorism, he said, as it meant that the media would not be able to report the details behind investigations.

“The real gist of this is about the impact on the ability of newspapers and most media to report what is going on,” Stephens added.

Flood sued The Times over the article which appeared in the newspaper, then online, on June 2, 2006, under the headline “Detective accused of taking bribes from Russian exiles”.

It reported that Scotland Yard was investigating allegations that ISC, a British security company with wealthy Russian clients, had paid a police officer in the extradition unit for sensitive information, and named Flood as the officer under investigation.

Flood claims that the words complained of meant that there were strong grounds to believe, or reasonable grounds to suspect, that he had abused his position as an officer with the Metropolitan Police extradition unit by corruptly accepting £20,000 in bribes from some of Russia’s most wanted suspected criminals in return for selling to them highly confidential Home Office and police intelligence about attempts to extradite them to Russia to face criminal charges, and had thus committed a breach of duty and betrayal of trust and a serious criminal offence.

Lord Neuberger said the fact that an unidentified insider had given specific information which, if true, may incriminate a claimant, would “very rarely be justifiable reportage”, adding: “Of course, it will add something to the substance and newsworthiness of the story that the police are investigating the claimant, but it seems to me that it would be tipping the scales too far in favour of the media to hold that not only the name of the claimant, but the details of the allegations against him, can normally be published as part of a story free of any right in the claimant to sue for defamation just because the general subject matter of the story is in the public interest.”

He said: “The nature of the information contained in the allegations is of considerable public concern in that it involves police corruption, but the weight to be given to that point is very severely reduced by the fact that the information is contained in the allegations, which, as the journalists knew, were largely unchecked and unsupported.”

The journalists did not seem to have done much to satisfy themselves that the allegations were true, he said, adding that the mere fact that an insider had made allegations against a police officer was not enough to justify publishing those allegations.

Lord Neuberger said that once one examined the list of factors given by Lord Nicholls in the Reynolds case of 2001 and once one asked whether publication of the allegations constituted responsible journalism, “it seems to me that it is clear that the publication of the article, insofar as it included the Allegations, does not attract Reynolds privilege”.

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