In a ground-breaking unanimous judgment, the law lords ruled in favour of a public interest defence that brings English law more into line with the freedom enjoyed by the US media.
In future, journalists will be free to publish material if they act responsibly and in the public interest and they will not be at risk of libel damages even if relevant allegations later prove to be untrue.
The law lords, Britain’s top judges, said that the media was entitled to publish defamatory allegations as part of its duty of neutral reporting of news, or if it believed them to be of substance and they raised matters of public interest.
The ruling came in an appeal by the Wall Street Journal Europe against a High Court decision, backed by the Court of Appeal, that it should pay £40,000 damages to a billionaire Saudi car dealer, Mohammed Jameel, whose family owns Harwell Motors in Oxford.
The story, published in February 2002, said that bank accounts associated with a number of prominent Saudi citizens, including Mr Jameel’s family and its businesses, had been monitored by Saudi authorities at the request of US authorities to ensure no money was provided intentionally or knowingly to support terrorists.
Lord Hoffman, giving the lead judgment, said that the article was a perfect example of journalism for which the public interest defence should be available.