On appeal from: [2010] EWCA Civ 804

The respondent police officer issued a claim for libel against the appellant publisher, complaining that an article meant there were strong grounds to suspect he had abused his position as a police officer. The High Court found that the publication of the article  was protected by Reynolds privilege, but this was overturned by the Court of Appeal.

The Supreme Court unanimously allowed the appeal; the article was protected by Reynolds privilege.

How to approach the question of meaning
It was commonplace for Reynolds privilege to be determined as a preliminary issue but this made it necessary to determine the meaning of the article, which would also be relevant to verification. The sensible way of achieving this was for the parties to agree to trial by judge alone, who could then resolve any dispute as to meaning at the same time.

The public interest test
In terms of public interest, each case will turn on its own facts. This story was of high public importance and the allegations against the respondent were the whole story. They were published with the legitimate aim of ensuring the allegations were properly investigated by the police in circumstances where the journalist had good reason to doubt that they were being. Naming the respondent was also justified as he would be identified in any event by his fellow officers and suspicion should not fall on other members of his unit.

Verification required to discharge the requirements of responsible journalism
privilege absolved the publisher from the need to justify his defamatory publication, but the privilege would normally only be earned where the publisher had taken reasonable steps to satisfy himself that the allegation was true before he published it.

The hard and fast principles relating to the defence of justification do not apply when considering verification. They would impose too strict a fetter on freedom of expression. Where a journalist alleges that there are grounds for suspecting that a person has been guilty of misconduct, the responsible journalist should satisfy himself that such grounds exist, but this does not necessarily require that he should know what those grounds are. Their existence can be based on information from reliable sources, or inferred from the fact of a police investigation in circumstances where such inference was reasonable. In this case the judge found that the supporting facts were true and verified as such.

For judgment, please download: [2012] UKSC 11
For Court’s press release, please download: Press Release
For a non-PDF version of the judgment, please visit: BAILII