Responsible defamation now legal in UK…

Emphasis on the responsible. Anyone thinking you can blog whatever you like, about whomever you like, should talk to Simon McGarr (and here if you need to talk to him more urgently). Still, this Lords judgement appears to have far reaching consequences for investigative journalism in the UK:

Stuart Karle, general counsel to The Wall Street Journal, said that the newspaper had spent millions of dollars on the case and that the decision represented an important turning point.

“The history of English libel law was that essentially no decision was final in a newsroom until a judge, several years later, agreed with you,” he said in an interview. “Going forward, this decision means that if you’re a quality news organization, you can fully and fairly cover the important issues of the day without this nagging problem of having a libel judge in London basically engage in an autopsy of every single thing you did, and decide whether he agrees with your editorial judgment.”

Geoffrey Robertson, counsel for the WSJ:

�The decision provides the media in Britain with an increased freedom to publish newsworthy stories. This is not a license for irresponsible journalism: It frees serious investigative journalism from the chilling effect of libel actions, so long as the treatment is not sensational and the editorial behaviour is responsible.

“It will enable, and indeed encourage, editors to place more information into the public domain than at present. The decision is an important step in moving freedom of speech closer to that enjoyed by the U.S. media under the First Amendment.

�The ruling also frees investigative journalists, authors and broadcasters to publish and defend stories without danger to their sources, especially sources at risk of human rights abuse. The media � the fourth estate � has tended to be reactive rather than proactive.

“This decision should usher in a new role for the media, enabling authors and journalists to make a genuine contribution to public knowledge rather than parroting back what they are told, often in partisan fashion, by police or politicians.�

This is the British unwritten constitution in action. It also should put the cat amongst the pigeons for Michael McDowell’s proposed amendments to key law affecting journalism in the Republic. This is one possible divergence that could keep a lot of people inside and outside journalism (and government) up for quite a few sleepless nights. Can a (loosely) unified news market operate effectively under such diverse press laws?

Or are we about to see the mother of all battles between a (rarely) conjoined press interest and the Department of Justice, to try to force an emergent genie back into the bottle?

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty