On 11 October 2006 the House of Lords, in a landmark ruling, unanimously overturned the decision of the High Court and Court of Appeal and allowed the defence of the Wall Street Journal Europe; effectively upholding the public interest defence in libel actions.
The decision represents an affirmation of the House of Lords’ decision in Reynolds v. Times Newspapers Limited in 2001 which was hailed as a victory for freedom of speech and investigative journalism, however until now had not provided a clear public interest protection from claims in libel.
The offending article was published in the Wall Street Journal Europe and claimed that the Saudi Arabian authorities were monitoring bank accounts of prominent Saudis for evidence of supporting terrorism, knowingly or not, at the behest of the US Government.
The article included the Abdul Latif Jameel Group as being on the list of monitored accounts. The main company in that group, and its president Mohammed Jameel, sued for libel.
The lower courts had allowed Jameel’s claim to succeed, taking a narrow interpretation of the Reynolds privilege defence.
But the Lords held that the Nicholls list in the Reynolds case, of 10 matters which journalists could consider in deciding whether the reporting was responsible, was not a hurdle to establishing the defence, but rather guidance as to what matters would be considered in deciding whether a journalist had acted reasonably. The Lords stressed that a “flexible and practical” approach should be taken in assessing whether the Reynolds privilege is made out in any case.
This decision greatly enhances the position for responsible investigative journalism on matters of public importance.
The Lords also held that corporate claimants do not have to prove financial loss to maintain a libel claim; a restatement of the present position.
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