WSJ Court Victory Enhances Reporting Freedom in UK

13 October 2006

LONDON: Some observers of the British media scene find a certain irony in the fact that it has taken a distinguished US newspaper to achieve a landmark legal ruling that encourages serious investigative journalism.

Although the latter is not unknown to UK newspapers, the majority are seemingly more concerned with dishing the dirt on the bed-hopping habits of politicians and so-called celebrities.

So hats off to the Wall Street Journal, which on Wednesday won a seminal decision from Britain's highest court, the Law Lords. In a unanimous verdict, a trio of Lords upheld an appeal by the WSJ that a news story printed in February 2002 was not libellous.

This overturned both the original verdict of a High Court jury trial and a subsequent similar decision by the Court of Appeal.

The alleged libel concerned a story in The Wall Street Journal Europe reporting that Saudi authorities, at the request of US law-enforcement agencies, were monitoring bank accounts of prominent local citizens and businesses to ensure they were not being used, wittingly or otherwise, to finance terrorism.

The offending piece was also published in the WSJ's US edition. It specifically named the Abdul Latif Jameel Group, whose president Mohammed Jamee - prominent in Saudi society - sued the two papers in the UK High Court claiming its story defamed both him and his company and seeking damages.

The WSJ declined to plead the standard defense of truth because it feared its sources in Saudi Arabia and the US Treasury Department could be seriously compromised - an argument that was not accepted by the two lower courts.

However, the Law Lords were prepared to accept a "qualified privilege" defense under which a defendant does not have to prove the truth of an allegedly defamatory statement if the reportage was both serious and responsible. Their Lordships deemed the WSJ's story to have been exactly that and also in the public interest.

A decision which amid Britain's famously plaintiff-friendly defamation laws - especially where newspapers are involved - now offers positive encouragement to responsible investigative reporting.

Law Lord Baroness Brenda Hale, wrote in her opinion: "We need more such serious journalism in this country and our defamation law should encourage rather than discourage it."

And Geoffrey Robertson, the WSJ's lead lawyer, hailed the ruling as ushering in a new role for the media, allowing journalists to "make a genuine contribution to public knowledge rather than parroting back what they are told, often in partisan fashion, by police or politicians."

Unlike the USA and most other modern Western nations, the UK has no written constitution that guarantees press or private freedom of speech, preferring instead to rely on the archaic detritus of its legal statute book, some of which backdates to medieval times.

Data sourced from Wall Street Journal Online; additional content by WARC staff