Britain’s top court Wednesday overturned a Saudi businessman’s libel victory in connection with Wall Street Journal articles about investigations into alleged terrorist funding.
The Law Lords said the newspaper had acted in the public interest when it identified Mohammed Jameel’s company as one whose bank accounts had been scrutinized at the request of U.S. law enforcement authorities, even though the claim itself was defamatory.
The judgment was widely interpreted as strengthening legal protection for investigative journalists in Britain, whose libel laws have long been seen as favoring claimants.
“We need more such serious journalism in this country and our defamation law should encourage rather than discourage it,” Judge Baroness Hale said in a written ruling.
Jameel sued the newspaper in the British courts after the report appeared in the Wall Street Journal Europe in February 2002. The High Court ruled in 2003 that the newspaper had libeled Jameel and ordered it to pay $74,000 in damages.
The Court of Appeal later upheld the High Court judgment.
But the Law Lords ? a panel of judges who sit in the House of Lords and constitute Britain’s highest court of appeal ? said that even though the material was defamatory, the article was clearly in the public interest and so the newspaper could claim protection from charges of libel.
“In the present case, the subject matter of the article complained of was of undoubted public interest,” said one of the five judges, Lord Bingham of Cornhill.
“If the thrust of the article is true, and the public interest condition is satisfied, the inclusion of an inaccurate fact may not have the same appearance of irresponsibility as it might if the whole thrust of the article is untrue,” he added in a written judgment.
The newspaper’s lawyer, Geoffrey Robinson, said the ruling strengthened press freedom in Britain, where libel laws have traditionally been seen as friendlier to claimants than those in the United States.
“This is not a license for irresponsible journalism,” he said. “It frees serious investigative journalism from the chilling effect of libel actions, so long as the treatment is not sensational and the editorial behavior is responsible.”
Jameel said the ruling did not change the lower courts’ finding that the newspaper had been wrong when it claimed his company’s accounts were monitored at U.S. request.
“Mr. Justice Eady and the Court of Appeal ruled that I was libeled,” Jameel said.
“The House of Lords ruled that I was not, because it was reasonable for the Wall Street Journal Europe to print something that was false. So be it. I was only ever interested in proving that the allegations were untrue.”