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'What defences does the law provide for journalists facing defamation cases?'

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Introduction

'What defences does the law provide for journalists facing defamation cases?' The law of defamation exists to protect both the moral and professional reputation of the individual from unjustified attacks. The law tries to strike a balance between freedom of speech and a free press with the protection of an individual's reputation. Should journalists face defamation cases there are defences available. Justification is one of these defences, to use this defence the journalist must prove that what they have written is substantially true. Before the defamation act of 1952 was passed, to succeed with a defence of justification you had to prove the exact truth of every defamatory statement made in the article in question. But now under section 5 of the act, the law states that the defence will not fail merely because the article contains some minor inaccuracies. However difficulties still arise as it is not the task of the claimant to show the article is untrue, but the task of the defendant ie. The journalist to prove the words written are true. The name 'justification' is misleading because the defendant does not need to show he had a moral or social reason for publishing the words, the fact they are true is satisfactory. The journalist has to prove the article in question is 'on balance of probabilities' which is a lower requirement than 'beyond reasonable doubt'. ...read more.

Middle

Journalists do however have absolute privilege in judicial proceedings but under section 14 of the defamation act 1996 absolute privilege can only be used as a defence if the report is fair, accurate and published contemporaneously. There are many mistakes journalists can make which will forfeit their defence of absolute privilege, eg. Wrongly reporting what was said in court. Monthly magazines and even weekly newspapers sometimes have difficulty with contemporaneous reports as they often carry stories over, again this can forfeit their defence of absolute privilege. Qualified privilege offers the journalist a defence which enables them to publish matters which are thought to be in the public interest. Therefore qualified privilege will not protect an article published which is not for the benefit of the public. Like absolute privilege the report must be fair and accurate but it differs because it must be published without malice. Malice in this context means the article is written maliciously, with bad feeling towards the person. There are a number of occasions when the press want to leak a story on a persons conduct but they will be prevented because they fear defamation action being brought against them. If the information is issued by: a legislature in any member state or the European parliament; The government of any member state, or any authority performing governmental functions in any member state or part of a member state or the European Commission; an international organisation or international conference. ...read more.

Conclusion

[1940] 1 KB 377 The Daily Express reported that 'Harold Newstead, 30-year-old Camberwell man' had been found guilty of bigamy and sent to prison for nine months. Another Harold Newstead successfully sued the paper as he also worked in Camberwell and claimed that the article had been referred to him. In a case such as this the defendant must make a written offer to make an apology and to publish a correction in a reasonable manner. For example the correction cannot be published in small print at the back of the paper. The defendant must also pay damages. In conclusion, it is usually clear what is and what isn't defamatory but in cases where the journalist slips up there are defences available. This mean that journalists get away with a lot more than they would without the defences. They are less concerned about pushing boundaries and publishing articles which may defame people. Just by looking through the daily paper and celebrity magazines one can see a huge amount of defamatory material. Celebrities are more of a threat to journalists than those of modest means eg. A journalist may not hesitate in defaming a person on income support as there is little they could do with their limited funds. Newspapers often have to consider whether they can afford not to publish a story, a scoop on a celebrity may sell millions of papers so they stand to make money even if they are taken to court and have to pay damages. Sometimes the story is worth facing a defamation case. ...read more.

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