Libel law redefined after Finers victory

The Reynolds defence against libel claims has been redefined after a crucial House of Lords judgment in favour of Finers Stephens Innocent client The Wall Street Journal.

Last week (11 October) the Lords handed down a unanimous judgment in favour of The Journal, widening the Reynolds public interest defence, which protects newspapers against defamation claims in the process.

Saudi Arabian businessman Mohammed Jameel and his company sued the newspaper for libel after a February 2002 article 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.

The article was part of a wider investigation into the extent of Saudi cooperation into the ‘war on terror’.

Geoffrey Robertson QC of Doughty Street Chambers, for the newspaper, argued that if there was public interest in publishing the article, this could be defeated only by proof of malice or negligence in the publication.

Both Mr Justice Eady in the High Court and the Court of Appeal had upheld the claim, awarding £40,000 in damages. However, in their judgment the Lords widened the Reynolds defence, ensuring that if a journalist and editor act responsibly they are protected by a public interest argument.

Giving the leading decision, Lord Hoffmann said: “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.”

Finers head of international Mark Stephens told The Lawyer: “The House of Lords has 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.”

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.