House of Lords backs serious journalism in libel case

A House of Lords defamation judgment has backed serious reporting over libel claims. The ruling found that reporters conducting serious investigations need not fear libel suits.

Saudi billionaire Mohammed Jameel took the Wall Street Journal to court over an article which said that the Saudi Arabian government was monitoring the bank accounts of the wealthy in a search for supporters of terrorism. The name of one of Jameel's companies was said to appear on a list of monitored accounts, a claim that turned out not to be true.

The Court of Appeal had found in Jameel's favour, but that ruling was overturned unanimously by five law lords. The ruling sets a precedent which could make defending defamation actions easier in the future, said experts.

"The decision provides the media in Britain with an increased freedom to publish newsworthy stories," said Geoffrey Robertson QC who represented The Wall St Journal in court. "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. The ruling also frees investigative journalists, authors and broadcasters to publish and defend stories without danger to their sources."

The newspaper mounted a public interest defence based on a ruling from 1998 involving former Irish prime minister Albert Reynolds. That ruling said that when a matter of public interest was being investigated, allegations that could not be proved true afterwards should not attract libel damages.

In the Reynolds case the judge outlined 10 tests to determine whether or not a story deserved protection from libel. The law lords said that these tests had been too stringently applied in the past and said that they wanted to restore "the spirit" of the Reynolds judgment. They said that not all tests need to be passed in order for a story to qualify.

The defence only exists, though, for stories and organisations that represent journalism that is unsensational, neutral and measured, said the lords.

"In the present case, the subject matter of the article complained of was of undoubted public interest," said one of the judges, Lord Bingham of Cornhill, in the ruling. "If the thrust of the article is true, and the public interest condition is satisfied, the inclusion of an inaccurate fact may not have the same appearance of irresponsibility as it might if the whole thrust of the article is untrue."

They rejected the Appeal Court judge's ruling against the newspaper partially on the basis that the publication of information breached an agreement between the governments of the US and Saudi Arabia to keep bank account monitoring secret.

"It is no part of the duty of the press to cooperate with any government, let alone foreign governments, in order to keep from the public information of public interest, the disclosure of which cannot be said to be damaging to national interests," said Lord Scott, one of the law lords.

Mohammed Jameel said: "What the Wall Street Journal Europe wrote in February 2002 was that the bank accounts of the Abdul Latif Jameel Group were being monitored at the request of the US authorities. That was not true. Mr Justice Eady and the court of appeal ruled that I was libelled. The House of Lords ruled that I was not, because it was reasonable for the Wall Street Journal Europe to print something that was false. So be it. I was only ever interested in proving that the allegations were untrue."

Another important issue that has arisen in this case and which was raised in the Court of Appeal, but not considered by the House of Lords, was the size of the article's online readership. Only five people in England had been shown to have clicked a link to the offending article, including Mr Jameel's solicitor and two of his business associates. The Court of Appeal considered it an abuse of process for Mr Jameel to pursue his claim in circumstances where only "very modest damages" would have been available to him following lengthy and expensive court proceedings. The Court of Appeal's decision on this issue has not been affected by this month's ruling by the Lords.