In an era of ‘fake news’ when it is more important than ever for readers to be able to trust the information reported in national newspapers, what standard of ‘responsible journalism’ is expected of sources or contributors to articles? The answer appears to be a lower standard than for journalists, according to the recent Court of Appeal decision in Economou v de Freitas (see our full case note here).
The Court of Appeal held that the Defendant, a "contributor" quoted in certain defamatory articles, was entitled to rely on the public interest defence under section 4 of the Defamation Act 2013 (the "Act").
In reaching their decision, the appeal judges apparently endorsed the view of the judge at first instance: it would not be appropriate to hold a source or contributor to the same standard of responsible conduct expected of a journalist by strictly applying the Reynolds approach (a common law, pre-Act, recommended ‘check-list’ relevant to the consideration of a successful public interest defence).
This contrasts with the recent decision in Doyle v Smith; in operating an online community blog the Defendant was a “citizen journalist”. As such, he did have to conform to the Reynolds requirements in order to claim the benefit of the s. 4 public interest defence. His conduct fell short and so, unlike in Economou, the public interest defence failed and damages were awarded.
The area of controversy summarised in Ground 1 of Appeal, raises difficult issues: in particular, the extent to which contributors to media publications or 'citizen journalists' are subject to the same standard of 'responsible conduct' that might be required of professional journalists, and the organs in which they publish, if they are to take advantage of the public interest defence.