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Libel Defamation: Roberts v Gable

By Edited Nov 13, 2013 0 0

Roberts v Gable was a case that involved the limits of Neutral Reportage as a defense and as it had turned out the limits were quite wide. It might be useful to quickly give a brief run down on the events that transpired there in that particular case.

Factual Context:

Christopher and Barry Roberts who were the claimants are part of the British National Party BNP. The events that had led to the defamation started with a political rally at a pub in Newham, which quickly disintegrated into chaos. The Roberts were seen leaving the rally with the collection money that was raised (1024 GBP). Two others, Dave and Bob wanted to claim the 200 pound booking fee for the pub but Christopher Roberts had refused over the phone. The two then undertook a 'long and bizarre journey' to Chris Robert's home and upon reaching they 'threatened him' and took the funds.

What ensued was a series of 'namecalling' between the Roberts and the Dave and Bob duo. The Defendants were only too happy to cover this, the first defendant was Gerry Gable, the writer, second was Steve Silver, the editor, and third the Searchlight Magazine where the article was published, which is known to have been openly critical of the British National party. The exact defamatory texts is not reproduced here.

At the first instance, the judge held that the defendants could enjoy qualified privilege of reportage, so the Roberts appealed and the appeal was dismissed with a refusal to appeal the appeal.

In a thorough look by the Courts on the Reynolds Privilege, an Al Fagih case as well as contemporary American standards, and then finally the European Human Rights Jurisdiction, they came to certain conclusions and legal premises.

In what some people say to be placing reportage in its proper place in the legal landscape they explained why "the reporter of reportage free from the responsibility of verifying the information and why does the well-established repetition rule not require the journalist to justify the truth of what he is reporting?" and whether the Reynolds rule apply as well as the proper approach to the defense at that point in time. And also on a side note whether Reportage would conflict with the Repitition Doctrine where on may be exculpated for making defamatory or derogatory remarks about another when it is said in a context of a dispute instead of reporting an allegation in isolation.

The answer to the last question is that the repetition rule and reportage are not in conflict with each other. The former is concerned with justification, the latter with privilege. A true case of reportage may give the journalist a complete defence of qualified privilege. If the journalist does not establish the defence then the repetition rule applies and the journalist has to prove the truth of the defamatory words.

One might wonder why a correctly attributed and unadopted allegation is defamatory at all; to state that the allegation has been made is, after all, true." The repetition rule concerns only the scope of the defence of justification in report cases: it does not limit the scope of qualified privilege at common law. Least of all does it require that an unadopted allegation is to be treated in the same way as an allegation asserted to be true."

Reportage is a special example of, Reynolds qualified privilege, a special kind of responsible journalism but with distinctive features of its own. The following matters must be taken into account when considering whether there is a defence on the ground of reportage. (1) The information must be in the public interest (2) Since the public cannot have an interest in receiving misinformation, the publisher must have taken reasonable steps to verify the truth and accuracy of what is published (3) If upon a proper construction of the thrust of the article the defamatory material is attributed to another and is not being put forward as true, then a responsible journalist would not need to take steps to verify its accuracy. He is absolved from that responsibility because he is simply reporting in a neutral fashion the fact that it has been said without adopting the truth. (4) The test is objective not subjective (5) This protection will be lost if the journalist adopts the report and makes it his own or if he fails to report the story in a fair, disinterested and neutral way. Once protection is lost, he must then show, if he can, that it was a piece of responsible journalism even though he did not check accuracy of his report. (6) To justify the attack on the claimant's reputation the publication must always meet the standards of responsible journalism as that concept has developed from the Reynolds case (7) The seriousness of allegation increases the standard required (8) The relevant factors properly applied will embrace the significance of the protagonists in public life and there is no need for insistence as preconditions for reportage on the defendant being a responsible prominent person or the claimant being a public figure as may be required in the USA. (9) The urgency is relevant, see factor 5, in the sense that fine editorial judgments taken as the presses are about to roll may command a more sympathetic review than decisions to publish with the luxury of time to reflect and public interest can wane with the passage of time, every story must be judged on its merits at the moment of publication.

Journalistic freedom also allows for the possible use of a certain dose of exaggeration, and even provocation It is not for the court to take the place of the press by saying what reporting technique journalists should adopt. taking the article as a whole and making allowance for the sarcastic speculation about possible police interest, the defendants did not adopt the allegation of wrongdoing as their own. This was attributed neutral reporting of a story in the public interest. It was proper reportage as that defence must now be understood.

Consequently responsible journalism did not require verification of the truth. apparent seriousness of the allegation was diluted by the fact that the thrust of the article related to the disagreement as to who should take charge of the collection, not to whether one or other stole it. The public were entitled to know of the fact that the BNP were then riven by this dispute. The source of the information was attributed and truth was not the effect of publication so the reliability of the source was of little significance and verification was not essential. No comment was sought from the claimants for wholly understandable reasons. Mr Gable explained in his oral evidence, "I didn't think they would have spoken to me … I think I would have been told where to go very rapidly"

In any event the claimants' side of the story was to be inferred: each protagonist was denying impropriety and blaming the other. Apart from a note of sarcasm, and, as all readers would suspect, some unfeigned glee at having this embarrassment to their political enemies presented "on a plate", the tone was as neutral and as disinterested as any article in "Searchlight" on the BNP could be. In all the circumstances, this was a piece of responsible journalism.


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