Filed under: Law, Media | Tags: carter-ruck, defamation, frontline club, libel law, media law, press freedom
It was too good to be true – Carter Ruck and Simon Singh in the same room! Debating libel law! Rargh!
In the wake of the online campaign to reform British libel law, the Frontline Club put together a panel to debate privacy, gagging orders/superinjunctions and whether current laws are a threat to press freedom in the UK.
On the panel were Nigel Tait for Carter-
F..Ruck; David Leigh, Guardian investigations editor (he testified during the Trafigura case); science journalist Simon Singh and a slightly nicer lawyer called David Hooper just to make Nigel more comfortable. I had been hoping for bloodshed but sadly there was none. Though the Carter-Rucker did turn up with a ‘The Guardian hates me’ badge pinned to his lapel.
There was plenty of serious, constructive talk around Conditional Fee Arrangements, shifting the burden of proof and public pressure affecting case outcomes (you can read my additional coverage here). But talk mainly centred around two examples.
Currently, Simon Singh is still being sued by the British Chiropractic Association for his comments in the Guardian. Crucially though, the original ruling by the trigger-happy Justice Eady that these comments were fact (rather than opinion) was overruled in the Court of Appeal. Now being able to argue a defence of fair comment, his case should in theory be much easier and cheaper to fight. The question was why something which was clearly fair comment was interpreted as possibly factual in the first place, massively costing the Guardian in legal fees and Simon in sanity.
Also involving the Guardian (and investigative editor David Leigh) was the Trafigura case, which in turn has led to questions about when a superinjunction is excusable or necessary.
Nigel Tait (and the man has a point) did point out that Trafigura was a rare exception to the rule of superinjunctions; which is that they are primarily imposed to stop tabloids from publishing medical histories or other highly personal information of notable individuals. For example; a doctor diagnoses a celebrity with cancer, then sells that diagnosis to the papers before the celebrity makes it public. To protect his privacy, you can place an injunction on reporting the celebrity’s medical history – but that doesn’t stop subsequent, unpleasant tabloid investigation into his health. So a superinjunction on this speculative intrusion is needed.
Why though, is the law so flexible that it can be applied to gag ‘worthy’ investigations like Trafigura?
Unfortunately, before laws can be altered to allow investigations like Trafigura, the red tops need to stop breaching individuals’ privacy. Is such a thing possible? Judith Townend explores this point more fully and intelligently here.
Defending rising libel defence costs and sounding like a true Carter-Rucker, Nigel Tait also said: “You can’t expect me to do five times more work for 10% of the money.” He was however all in favour of a two-tier system which has been proposed – a kind of ‘libel tribunal‘ for smaller cases which needn’t break the bank, what with all the photocopying libel lawyers have to do. This, he suggested, might reduce the ‘chilling effect’ massive legal fees has on journalism practice among smaller publishers.
I’ll leave you to chew over his final thought on bloggers vs. traditional media:
Clients treat [online libel] differently. If they see something in a paper, they think it’s going to be believable, but people are more sceptical about what they see online. [...] Their attitude is very different if they see something published in a newspaper. They really want to go for them.
UPDATE: 15/4/2010: Simon Singh is no longer being sued by the BCA. Hurray!
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