Tuesday, April 23, 2024

EDITORIAL: Will the public interest win elsewhere?


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The British media jumped with glee yesterday as Britain’s highest court ruled in favour of the right to claim a defence of “public interest” in a case of alleged police corruption.
In the landmark ruling, five Supreme Court justices held that The Times of London was entitled to claim the defence after reporting that a police officer might have taken bribes. Yesterday’s decision overturned a Court of Appeal ruling in 2010, signalling some endorsement of the much touted Reynolds defence.
The so-called Reynolds defence seeks to protect the publication of contentious material where it is in the “public interest”.
The Times had appealed to the Supreme Court after being sued over an article naming a Met Police detective amid allegations he had taken money to disclose confidential information about extradition requests to a security firm which advised Russian oligarchs.
Obviously, it was in the public’s interest to know the details of allegations being made against members of their very own police. Suspicion of those sworn to enforce the law and, equally important, uphold it, would have been extremely troubling. Fortunately, for everyone else, as for the detective, there would be no truth girding the accusations.
Naturally, Detective Sergeant Gary Flood sued the newspaper for libel – in June 2006 – and in its defence The Times invoked this special defence for publications in the public interest.
The Reynolds privilege, given to this type of defence, protects the media when they have published an allegation later proved to be untrue, which defence may be successful if essentially they were under a duty to publish the material in question; if their readers to whom the material was published had a legitimate interest in it; and if the media themselves behaved responsibly.
The ruling is greatly significant to the British newspaper industry, which is facing falling circulations and tougher regulation, in light of the recent News Of The World phone hacking scandal. But it could be a comfort to investigative journalists, who have been facing increased challenges from tougher scrutiny in such matters as privacy.
More so, it could offer hope to media elsewhere, as in the Caribbean; as in Barbados, where editors and their writers walk on eggshells on a hot tin roof when they go seeking out stories that ruffle feathers. But the underlying challenge is that in the very membership of the British Commonwealth defamation laws vary from country to country.
So the success of the Reynolds defence outside Britain may yet be doubtful and not largely tenable – for all the glee we may share with The Times – unless the sued media have limitless financial resources.
However, it would be reasonable to assume most common law countries will be guided by this latest ruling of the Supreme Court of Britain; that they will see it as being a worthy precedent.


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