A ruling by Britain's highest court on Wednesday for the first time said journalists have the right to publish allegations about public figures, as long as their reporting is responsible and in the public interest.
The unanimous ruling by a five-bench House of Lords improves English journalists' chances of winning libel cases — close to the freedom enjoyed by US media. The ruling was hailed by newspapers across the country. Journalists will be able to publish material if they act responsibly and in public interest, and be free from the risk of libel damages, even if allegations later prove untrue, the Times reported.
The judges, who constitute Britain’s highest court, said the media were entitled to publish defamatory allegations as part of its duty of neutral reporting, or if it believed them to be of substance, and to raise matters of public interest.
The Law Lords gave the ruling in an appeal by The Wall Street Journal Europe against a High Court decision, backed by the Court of Appeal, that it should pay £40,000 damages to Mohammad Jameel, a billionaire Saudi car dealer, whose family owns Harwell Motors in Oxford.
The paper had published a story in February 2002, alleging that bank accounts associated with a number of prominent Saudi citizens, including Jameel’s family and their businesses, had been monitored by the Saudi government at the request of United States authorities to ensure that no money was provided intentionally or otherwise to support terrorists.
Lord Hoffmann said the article was a perfect example of journalism for which the public interest defence should be available. It was for judges to apply the public interest test, but the article easily passed that test, he said.
The judges held that the thrust of the story was to inform the public that the Saudis were co-operating with the US. It could not be proved because the existence of covert surveillance would be impossible to establish by evidence. But that did not mean it did not happen.
The newspaper was entitled to report even serious defamations against individuals, so long as they “made a real contribution to the public interest element in the article”. Lord Hoffmann also said judges, with “leisure and hindsight”, should not second-guess editorial decisions. “That would discourage investigative reporting,” he added.