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Law Column: Case gives guidance on journalistic defences

Mr Justice Eady’s recent ruling in the case of Hunt v Times Newspapers Limited is significant.  It helps to clarify what will and will not be allowed in attempts to defend libel claims by way of justification and/or the Reynolds defence of responsible journalism.

In July 2010, The Sunday Times published an article under the headline: “Taxpayers fund land purchase from crime lords”. In this article, it was alleged that David Hunt was guilty of very serious crimes including murder and drug trafficking and was at the heart of a mafia-esque criminal network.  Hunt brought libel proceedings against The Times in relation to this article.

The meaning of the article was not really in dispute– the article was clearly defamatory of the claimant.  The focus of the case was whether The Times was either justified in what it had published; or if not, whether in relation to allegations that were both false and defamatory, it could rely on the Reynolds defence.

Mr Hunt applied to strike out portions of the defence on the basis that the defendant did not have any reasonable prospect of defending the claim.  In striking out some elements of The Times’ defence, Eady J. gave broad consideration to both the defence of justification and Reynolds privilege.

The judgment contains useful guidance on researching and writing stories.  The principles, many of which serve as a reminder rather than stating anything new, which can be distilled from the judgement are:

  • When making allegations of serious crime, enough detail must be known about the crime in order to plead justification if the story ends up having to be defended.  Eady J. struck out submissions where The Times had not given detailed enough particulars for the justification.  It was found that, in relation to some of the grounds for justification, the defence was too vague.   For example, The Times alleged that Mr Hunt had murdered a night-club doorman without stating who the doorman was or when the crime was committed;
  • Third-party beliefs, or alleged admissions made by third parties, do not amount to justification.  In its defence, The Times sought to rely on a fictional book supposedly containing an account of Mr Hunt’s criminal activities (attributed to a fictional character).  The court ruled that it was not sufficient to plead that Stephen Hunt, David Hunt’s brother, had stated this was a true account of his brother’s criminal involvement.  Further details linking David Hunt to the book and fictional character were needed.  In addition, the brother had no authority to make such an admission on David Hunt’s behalf;
  • Whilst spent convictions can be admitted to support a plea of justification, in his judgment, Eady J. observes that the allegations in The Times’ article were very serious and the spent convictions were old and less serious than those alleged in the article (taking and driving away, criminal damage and handling stolen goods);
  • Unfounded allegations/rumours are not sufficient to justify a defamatory story or support a Reynolds defence.  Even adding up multiple different rumours, all supporting a common allegation, is not sufficient;
  • To demonstrate responsible journalism, the same weight should not be given to information provided by all categories of source.  Whilst the underling prerogative of protecting sources must be observed, the court can make an assessment of the weight to be attributed to a type of source e.g. if a source is a criminal, it would be significant for the court to take this into account when deciding how much reliance to be placed on the information disclosed by the source;
  • It is not enough to publish a story and then hope that the evidence supporting a particular allegation will be established afterwards – the evidence must have been established prior to publication to support a Reynolds defence;
  • Consideration must be given to proportionality – the more serious the allegation, the better quality the research should be to justify the public interest in the publication.  In Hunt v The Sunday Times, it was not sufficient to state that journalists had “considered” allegations; rather, matters should have been checked, established or verified.

This case doesn’t break any new ground in journalistic defences to libel claims but it serves as a useful reminder of where the law stands.  Eady J. confirms that verification is crucial if stories end up having to be defended.

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