11 October 2006

UK Libel Reform?

I have not yet been able to confirm the substance of an article in today's Times reporting that the Law Lords have provided for a public interest defense in libel suits.

The British media won the freedom to publish allegations about public figures free from the threat of libel laws in a landmark House of Lords ruling today. In a ground-breaking unanimous judgment, the law lords ruled in favour of a public interest defence that brings English law more into line with the freedom enjoyed by the US media. In future, journalists will be free to publish material if they act responsibly and in the public interest and they will not be at risk of libel damages even if relevant allegations later prove to be untrue. The law lords, Britain's top judges, said that the media was entitled to publish defamatory allegations as part of its duty of neutral reporting of news, or if it believed them to be of substance and they raised matters of public interest.

Francis, Gibbs, "Landmark Ruling Heralds US-Style Libel Laws in Britain" (fake paragraphing removed for clarity).

Presuming that this description of the opinion is correct—and I have not yet obtained a copy of it—it is a huge step toward correcting some serious problems with UK law. However, the description leaves open a disquieting loophole: Who qualifies as "the British media" and/or "journalists"? Specifically, would this sort of protection extend to authors of books who are not professional "journalists" as one might ordinarily use that term?

Nonetheless, I congratulate the Law Lords for recognizing that things have changed substantially since the seventeenth century, and that seventeenth-century approaches to the law occasionally need to be revisited and rejected.

Update: The opinion in Jameel v. Wall Street Journal Europe SPRL can be found at 2006 UKHL 44 (11 Oct 2006). Although the opinion at first glance is not quite as sweeping as the Times article implies, it is still a good step toward reform. Now, if the UK would just go toward "claimant must prove falsity" instead of "publisher must prove truth"...