LAWFUEL – UK Law News – The House of Lords in the case of Jameel v Wall Street Journal yesterday addressed the application of the public interest (qualified privilege) defence to defamation. To date, very few cases have succeeded in using the defence. The defence was established by the case of Reynolds v The Times  2 A.C 127. Journalists can rely on the defence, providing the defamatory article was published in the public interest and the journalist met certain standards of ‘responsible journalism’. In the Reynolds case, Lord Nicholls set out a set of criteria by which the courts could judge if a journalist had acted responsibly (for example, by taking appropriate steps to verify information and seeking comment from the claimant). The lower courts have been stringent in applying each of Lord Nicolls’ criteria, often allowing the defence to fail when all were not met.
Yesterday, the Lords applied the test for responsible journalism more flexibly, and stated that a defendant need not satisfy every component of Lord Nicolls’ test to succeed. As a result, it seems that many more defendants may benefit from this defence. In the future we may see newspapers placing greater reliance on the qualified privilege defence, rather than placating the individual or company it has defamed.
However, while newspapers may find it easier to show that they have acted responsibly in publishing a defamatory article, the Lords stressed that to succeed with a Reynolds’s privilege defence, the defendant would still need to convince the courts that the defamatory article is in the public interest, and, as Lord Hoffman put it, “the newspapers are not often the best judges of where the line should be drawn”.