Wednesday 16 June 2010

Libel victory: 'Higher bar' set for defamation cases

Good news on the libel laws front today after lawyers for the Daily Telegraph said a legal victory for the paper over a Lynn Barber review has raised the bar for claimants who sue for libel.
Press Gazette reports: "Justice Tugendhat today dismissed a libel claim made by Dr Sarah Thornton against the Telegraph over a review written by Barber in November, 2008 of her book Seven Days in the Art World.
"Thornton sued over a section in which Lynn Barber said she had given her interviewees 'copy approval', meaning that they had the right to read what she had written about them for the book and alter it.
"In his judgment today Justice Tugendhat notes that Thornton "appears to share the view" that "giving copy approval is something to be disapproved of".
He added: "In my judgement, if read by itself, the first paragraph containing the copy approval allegation is not capable of being a personal libel. It is not capable of meaning that Dr Thornton had done anything which in ordinary language could be highly reprehensible, or reprehensible at all…"
In his judgment Tugenhat said the "threshold of seriousness" in libel needed to be raised. Referring to the Jameel versus Dow Jones case, considered a benchmark libel ruling, Tugenhat said the word "substantially" should be inserted into the definition of libel used in it.
Tegunhat said that the definition quoted in the Jameel case, and which he applied to the Thornton case, is that: "The publication of which he [Jameel] complains may be defamatory to him because it [substantially] affects in an adverse manner the attitude of other people towards him, or has a tendency so to do."
A spokesman for David Price Solicitors and Advocates, which represented the Telegraph, said Tugendhat had concluded that for a libel claim to be successful "not just that the words complained of must impute some detriment to the claimant in the estimation of right-thinking members of society, but also that there must be a substantial effect on the claimant in order to deem a publication defamatory".
The spokesman added: "Inclusion of the word 'substantially' is crucial and is likely to set a higher bar for defamation cases in future."
  • MediaGuardian commentator Roy Greenslade has welcomed the ruling: "Tugendhat, in accepting Price's argument, effectively raises the bar for libel claimants. He gave a new definition of what may constitute defamation by ruling that publication should "substantially" affect a claimant. Journalists should applaud his judgment as tilting the balance in favour of press freedom."

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