How strong is the ‘Reynolds defence’ to libel?

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Photo Credit: James Cridland via Compfight cc

The saviour of investigative journalism seemed to have been found in the ‘Reynolds defence’ when it was first successfully used it court as it seemed to protect reporters who’s stories had previously been dropped because the reporter had feared for libel action.

Two cases recently thought to have shown the opposing strengths and problems with reliance on the ‘Reynolds defence.’ The first case saw the Times pay out £60,000 to a Police Officer as it had failed to act responsibly or report on matters which later exonerated him. Whereas, a judge has just struck out a claim of libel against Channel 4 by six police officers because he did not believe the police officers would be unlikely to beat Channel 4’s ‘Reynolds defence’ even though the defence had only been indicated and not pleaded.

From 1 January 2014, the common law public interest defence is to all intents and purposes being put into statute in the form of the Defamation Act 2013, however this will only cover material published from 1 January onwards, ith anything published prior to that date still requiring the use of the ‘Reynolds defence.’

The court, when assessing the ‘Reynolds defence’ will take into consideration:

  • The story’s sources; are they impartial, are they holding a grudge?
  • Has the story been verified, if so by who and which sources were used?
  • Is the story being investigated by other agencies which could assist the reporter?
  • The article’s tone – is the story biased, or neutral, something some journalists and publications can struggle doing?
  • Importantly, was the subject of the story given a right to reply, if so was this covered sufficiently and weighted accordingly within the story?
  • Has the subject of the story previously spoken about the matter, if so does it reflect they have said?

When looking at the opposing decisions granted by the courts using the ‘Reynolds defence’ it would seem like the Defamation Act 2013 is a timely addition to the world of libel which should remain more consistent in future.