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?

  • Rory

    …if you’re a quality news organization, you can fully and fairly cover the important issues of the day = Stuart Karle, General Counsel to The Wall Street Journal

    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. – Geoffrey Robertson, Counsel for The Wall Street Journal.

    What utter meaningless pomposity – “..quality news organisations”; “..fully and fairly cover”; ..”..important issues of the day”; “..serious investigative journalism”; “…not sensational”; “…responsible (editorial behaviour)”.

    How can all these terms, so burdened with such subjective garlands of flowery adjectives, possibly give any clear guidance? Those seeking to embark on legally contentious adventures really need nuch more robust guidance from their lawyers such as, for example:

    Never hit your granny with a poker, it leaves the track of coaldust round her ears.

    This decision seems only to warn one of the inadvisability of taking on The Wall Street Journal in the present climate if one was foolish enough to be born an Arab. I can’t imagine a similar ruling against a wealthy Arab in the 1970’s, but then I can’t imagine the financial press then acting so insensitively in the case of rich Arabs.

  • Kilburn Kate

    I agree with Rory. Look what happened to Seven Days in the 1960s: neutered or the BBC when they exposed the beginning of the Iraqi holocaust. The House of Lords is the British establishment personified. Look at all the cover ups they have done regarding the Dirty War in the North.
    Still, now that the O/C of Britain’s defence forces has admitted they are getting their arses kicked in Iraq, maybe sense is beginning to prevail.
    This story is particularly nonsensical. Of course Osama is getting money fom Saudi not Israel. Allowing the WSJ shoot off a little on that hardly changes much. How about taking on those behind the Iraqi war?
    Also, remember the Daily Mail front paged some racist killers with the headline “Sue us”. And the Guardian told that horny MP to do the same and destroyed him in the process.
    Let us see how this pans out. Expect no change is my bet.
    And then there is our own Thomas Slab Murphy, cruelly done in by the Sunday Times. Did he ever pay them by the way?

  • I agree with all the complaints about the hoopla over this most ambiguous decision, plus the outrageous costs anyone risks by going to court, either as a plaintiff or defendant, in the UK. Any reporter, no matter how sure he is of his story, and his sources, must dread going to court over them for fear he might lose, probably ending up more than just broke.

  • avonmore

    Mick Fealty. Moderators

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