Nick Braithwaite on the problems faced by UK media in the EU.

Nick Braithwaite is a lawyer with Clifford Chance and editor of The International Libel Handbook.

When Observer journalist John Sweeney described the millionaire Barclay twins, David and Frederick, as "interesting people with an interesting past", he could never have predicted just how interesting his next year would be.

As a result of comments he made on a Radio Guernsey broadcast in October 1995 about the famously secretive millionaire owners of the Ritz and of numerous other interests, he was ordered by a French court at the end of January to pay F20,000 (£2,300) and to publish a retraction.

The Barclays launched every litigation weapon at their disposal – parallel criminal and civil slander actions in Brittany, a privacy suit in Paris, and a defamation action in London. With the London and Paris cases still pending, they have also sought, without success, a judicial review of the Broadcasting Complaints Commission decision.

The trial court rejected the Barclays' slander case in St Malo, Brittany, arising from the Guernsey broadcast. But on appeal at the end of January, although John Birt, BBC director general, was still cleared entirely and Sweeney escaped a criminal conviction for slander, Sweeney attracted civil liability because of his "bad faith."

What, then is the decision's significance? To begin with, the Barclays were always likely to be tenacious opponents. With cross-border publication, forum shopping is an obvious option, and these people have international reputations and interests to protect. Second, the case underlines the unharmonised nature of the substantive laws of libel and privacy within the EU.

But perhaps the most striking feature is the relative ease of suing an overseas publisher in France. It is an established feature of French defamation and privacy law that publish-ing in France opens the door to French jurisdiction. The Guernsey broadcast could have been heard in Brittany like most of the BBC's and other broadcasters' output – whether it actually was is unclear.

But what is clear is the problem the decision could pose to the tabloid in the St Tropez newsagent, the UK-style magazine on a Paris Web browser, or the Channel 4 investigation receivable in Calais.

But the media will not be panicking just yet – not many plaintiffs have such deep pockets or determination as the Barclay twins.