Our Readers' Opinions
October 20, 2006

Freedom to defame?

by R. Andrew Cummings 20.OCT.06

In February 2002 a newspaper named “Wall Street Journal Europe” published a story which said that bank accounts associated with a number of prominent Saudi citizens, including the family of billionaire car dealer Mohammed Jameel which owns Hanwell Motors in England, had been monitored by Saudi authorities at the request of USA authorities to ensure that no money was provided intentionally or knowingly to support terrorists.

Mr Mohammed Jameel sued “Wall Street Journal Europe” for damages for libel. He won his case in the English High Court and also at the Court of Appeal.{{more}}

“Wall Street Journal Europe” appealed to Britain’s highest Court the House of Lords. In a judgment, of earthquake like proportions, the Law Lords ruled “In future journalists will be free to publish information if they act responsibly and in the public interest and they will not be at risk of libel even if the relevant allegations later prove to be untrue. 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”.

Lord Hoffman, giving the lead judgment, said that the article in “Wall Street Journal Europe” was a perfect example of journalism for which the public interest defence should be available. Baroness Hale of Richmond in her judgment said, “We need more such serious journalism in this country and our defamation law should encourage it rather than discourage it”.


Although guaranteed by our Constitution, with certain restraints, the concept of a free press has long been regarded by many journalists as largely illusory. But does the House of Lords judgment swing the pendulum in the other direction? Is it not a licence to defame? It is true to say that the Law must always strike a balance between the public interest in exposing wrongdoing and the individual’s right to have his reputation defended from malicious attack. That must be the Litmus test.

Not binding as yet

The House of Lords judgment is persuasive and not binding in our Courts. Our highest Court is the British Privy Council which is yet to hear and decide on a like case. But it must be borne in mind that the Privy Council is made up of like-minded judges if not the very same ones. It will only be a matter of time unless we join the CCJ in its appellate jurisdiction and it rules differently on this issue or introduces legislation which defines libel to the contrary.

In Essence

The judgment is nothing but a clarion call to journalists to ply their trade responsibly, competently, honestly and professionally – nothing more nothing less.

Bring on the debate!

Writer’s note:

A comprehensive legal analysis of the judgment, which runs over 100 pages, is the function of a Law journal or magazine. This article is more of a tight summary with commentary for public information.