Hutton's view of press freedom was inaccurate, claims lawyer

Hooper: matter of public interest

Lord Hutton has been accused of taking an “old-fashioned” view of media law.

Leading media lawyer David Hooper said Hutton had failed to take into account the implications of the “Reynolds defence” for libel cases which has been available since a House of Lords ruling in 1999. The defence gives journalists a “qualified privilege” to report statements that later prove to be untrue if they are from a good source and are on a matter of public interest.

Hutton said in his report: “False accusations of fact impugning the integrity of others, including politicians, should not be made by the media.”

But Hooper commented: “Hutton’s statement portrays a fairly oldfashioned view of freedom of the press and public interest. Nowhere is there an acceptance of the right of people to talk to the press on what was one of the biggest public interest issues of the day.”

Former BBC director general Greg Dyke expressed a similar view when he spoke on Breakfast with Frost last Sunday.

He said: “I’m advised by lawyers that he’s got it wrong. What we said was this was an authoritative source – Dr Kelly, one of the world’s leading experts in weapons of mass destruction – who had told us he had real concerns about the dossier the Government produced, which is effectively a PR document, to say that was their reason for going to war.”

He added: “He has got the law wrong. If his interpretation of the law is allowed to stand it has incredibly serious implications for broadcasting and for print journalism in this country in reporting whistleblowers inside the civil service or the Government.”

Society of Editors executive director Bob Satchwell said journalists not directly involved in the Hutton Inquiry should not let the report affect their methods.

He said: “There seem to be a lot of people who are almost transfixed by Hutton, suggesting it should change the way journalists go about their jobs.

“It does make sense that any media organisation should respond to and deal with complaints as quickly as possible and to a conclusion, especially if they are from a serial complainer.

“People should take it for what it was, but not be put off course from asking penetrating questions of politicians and anyone else for that matter.”

By Dominic Ponsford

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