Finers wins landmark libel ruling for Wall Street Journal

Finers Stephens Innocent and Doughty Street Chambers have won a landmark judgment in the House of Lords that redefines the Reynolds defence against libel claims.

Finers head of international Mark Stephens and Geoffrey Robertson QC of Doughty Street acted for The Wall Street Journal as it fought libel claims brought by Saudi Arabian businessman Mohammed Jameel and his company.

In 2002 the newspaper published a story alleging that bank accounts associated with Jameel and other Saudi companies had been monitored by Saudi authorities at the request of US authorities to ensure that the company was not providing money to terrorists.

Jameel’s ensuing defamation claim was upheld by both Mr Justice Eady in the High Court and the Court of Appeal, rejecting the newspaper’s use of the Reynolds Defence of public interest and awarding the claimants £40,000 in damages.

However, this morning (11 October) Lords Bingham of Cornhill, Hoffmann, Hope of Craighead, Scott of Foscote and Baroness Hale of Richmond handed down a unanimous decision in the Journal’s favour.

Hoffmann said that although the allegations could not be proved, they “made a real contribution to the public interest element in the article”.

Hoffmann added: “Allowance must be made for editorial judgment. If the article as a whole is in the public interest, opinions may reasonably differ over which details are needed to convey the general message. The fact that the judge, with the advantage of leisure and hindsight, might have made a different editorial decision should not destroy the defence. That would make the publication of articles which are, ex hypothesi, in the public interest, too risky and would discourage investigative reporting.”

Stephens told The Lawyer: “The House of Lords have got fed up with the way in which Reynolds is being misinterpreted, essentially treating each of the 10 Reynolds factors as a trip wire which can open a bear trap for the media at any moment. This judgment should encourage wider reporting.”

The Wall Street Journal’s general counsel Stuart Karle said: “The Lords’ decision recognises the effort and care with which the Journal’s reporters and editors produced the story, and the importance of giving news organisations an incentive to produce serious journalism on compelling subjects of public concern without the risk of nitpicking and second guessing by courts years later.”

A costs hearing is yet to happen, but the newspaper’s costs are likely to run into several million pounds.

Andrew Stephenson of Carter-Ruck acted for Jameel, instructing James Price QC of 5 Raymond Buildings.