A newspaper which continued to publish a defamatory article on its website after its subject was cleared in an investigation lost its right to claim a special journalistic defence against libel, the High Court has said.
The ruling makes it clear that while responsible journalism is given some libel protection, that protection can evaporate if the crucial facts of the case change. Web archives of stories must change to reflect this, the ruling said.
The ruling not only is significant for traditional publishers, but is also of concern to bloggers, who have been increasingly under legal assault. Simon Singh, who has been sued by the British Chiropractic Association for libel, had an interesting column last week in The Times, ,England’s libel laws don’t just gag me, they blindfold you, in which he wrote:
One of the main fears, expressed repeatedly during the evening, was the sheer cost of a libel case. Although the damages at stake might be just £10,000, going to trial can mean risking more than £1m. This means that a blogger has to ask whether he or she can afford the possibility of bankruptcy. Even if a blogger is 90% confident of victory, there is still a 10% chance of failure, which is why bloggers often back down, withdraw and apologise for material they believe is true, fair and important to the public.
I should point out that I am being sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association. Indeed, last week I was at the Court of Appeal where I received permission to appeal against an earlier ruling on the meaning of my article. The original article was published 18 months ago, the case has cost me £100,000 and there is still a long way to go. My reason for not backing down is that I believe my article is accurate, important and a matter of public interest, as it relates to the use of chiropractic in treating various childhood conditions, such as asthma and ear infections.
But as Singh points out, the reality is that most bloggers do not have the resources he has to fight libel or defamation suits, even if their stories are accurate or are protected speech. This latest UK ruling seems to open up a new Pandora’s box, and seems to suggest that once a story is published, the publisher is responsible for it in perpetuity should important facts come out later that could affect someone’s reputation.