A wrong-headed ruling

The Supreme Court ruling yesterday about new defences on libel claims has many in the media cheering. Journalists now have new latitude when it comes to chasing stories and defending their work against those who feel wronged and sue for libel. As a long-time journalist and author, I think what the courts have done is a grievous error and sets up a series of new ways of measuring the sting of libel that will be difficult to define.

The fact that we are now in sync with the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand gives me no ease. As someone who has been involved with libel as a writer and editor, I have always felt it was right and appropriate that what the writer or broadcaster produced be accurate and factual. Any straying from truth and a writer should suffer consequences at trial. Now a writer can get it wrong as long as he or she tried hard to get it right. What effort is required? A phone call or an email to a party from which there is no response over a few hours now seems to be sufficient.

And what precise meaning will the courts ascribe to “public interest” a phrase the Supreme Court used all too loosely for my way of thinking. A journalist can now publish allegations with impunity, with no need to prove them, if it’s in the public interest. Can such decisions really be made on a fair and even-handed basis in scores of newsrooms and by countless bloggers, not all of whom are good at much other than rushing something (anything) into public view.

Citizens, said Chief Justice Beverley McLaughlin, are not entitled “to demand perfection.” The new watchword is “responsible journalism.” I have seen up close how journalists act and I can tell you that too many of them are not responsible. Accuracy and getting the facts right, with a second or third confirming source, used to be a helpful weeding-out process. That fail-safe hurdle has rudely been cast aside.

Oh, but standards will evolve, said the court. I can tell you those standards will take years longer than anyone would like, will be much lower than aggrieved subjects of stories deserve and cause hurt to a lot of innocent people along the way.

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