Judgment -House of Lords - Reynolds v. Times Newspapers Limited and Others  continued

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    But there is another general rule. The circumstances in which the common law defence of qualified privilege will be applied have always been defined broadly. In Perera v. Peiris [1948] A.C. 1, 20 Lord Uthwatt, giving the judgment of the Privy Council, said that their Lordships preferred to relate their conclusions to the wider general principle which underlies the defence of privilege in all its aspects rather than to debate the question whether the case fell within some specific category. This approach recognises the fact that the question is ultimately one as to striking the right balance between competing interests. In order to achieve this the primary concern of the law must be to maintain its flexibility. The advantages of certainty, which is the product of recognising that cases falling within a certain class or category will always attract qualified privilege, must be measured against the disadvantages which tend to flow from rigidity.

    I think that three factors are relevant to the issue as to whether a generic qualified privilege can be recognised. The first relates to the precision with which the category can be described. The second relates to the persons to whom the material is to be communicated. The third relates to the issue of malice. As the only protection left against the damaging effect of communicating defamatory false statements is proof of malice which will remove the privilege, care should be taken not to give the benefit of the privilege too readily to persons or organisations whose sources of information are themselves protected to an extent which renders the issue of malice inscrutable.

    If the category cannot be described precisely, it will be at risk of enlargement or erosion case by case and thus of losing touch with the underlying justification for the creation of the category. Where imprecision is unavoidable, the better course would seem to be to take each case on its own facts and circumstances. If the category is of a kind where the communication is made to a particular person or group of persons, and not to the public generally, it may be thought that the advantages of precision outweigh those which come with flexibility. The consequences to the person who is the subject of the communication are likely to be less serious than they would be if the defamatory statement of fact is published generally. But where the category involves communication to the public, the question must be whether the public interest in the receipt of the information will always outweigh the general public interest in protecting the reputation of the individual. This is a question which is particularly sensitive to changing circumstances, whether they be social or political, and to changes in the way in which information is presented or disseminated. As for the issue of malice, the less open the communicator is to scrutiny, the more important it is likely to be to retain the benefits of flexibility. Qualified privilege, in other words, should not be given to a category where the occasion of the communication is such that the privilege is at risk of becoming, in practice, absolute.

    Against that background I regard the election cases as providing the most useful starting point for an examination of the authorities. This is a clearly recognisable group of cases, as to which the limits of the application of a generic qualified privilege can be readily identified. Lord Lester's argument is that the temporal and geographical limits which have been laid down in these cases are out of date. He said that the law should now recognise that there is a point of principle in them which should be applied more generally. I think that there is much force in that argument. But is first necessary to examine the cases to see what that principle is, and whether the limits which have been set by these cases for the application of the qualified privilege are indeed too narrow and should now be modified.

    In Duncombe v. Daniell (1837) 8 C. & P. 222, the defendant was a voter in a parliamentary election. He wrote two letters which were published in a newspaper, the "Morning Post," which reflected upon the character of one of the candidates in his constituency. The plaintiff was awarded damages, whereupon the defendant applied for a new trial. One of the grounds for the application was that it was justifiable for an elector bona fide to communicate to the constituency any matter respecting a candidate which he believed to be true and believed to be material to the election. The application was refused. In the course of the argument Coleridge J., at p. 229, said that the defendant had to go further than that and show that the elector was entitled to publish it to all the world, as the publication was in a newspaper. Counsel for the defendant submitted that if no more was done than was necessary to make the matters known to the electors the publication was privileged, and that whether or not anything more was done was a question for the jury. Giving judgment Lord Denman C.J. said at p. 229:

     "However large the privilege of electors may be, it is extravagant to suppose that it can justify the publication to all the world of facts injurious to a person who happens to stand in the situation of a candidate."

    The same point was raised in several Scottish cases towards the end of the nineteenth century. Two of these cases concerned statements made by individuals about the fitness for office of candidates who were seeking election at the time when the statements were published: Anderson v. Hunter (1891) 18 R. 467 and Bruce v. Leisk (1892) 19 R. 482. Two of them concerned anonymous letters, one about a candidate for election, the other about a public official, which were published in local newspapers: Brims v. Reid & Sons (1885) 12 R. 1016 and McKerchar v. Cameron (1892) 19 R. 383. It is worth mentioning these cases, as they contain some observations which are relevant to the issue which we have to decide.

    In Anderson v. Hunter the pursuer was seeking election as a county councillor for a division of the county of where a parish had been divided into two electoral divisions for county council purposes. The defender lived in the same parish but he was an elector in the other division. He had made various statements to people in the parish that the pursuer was not fit to be elected as he would soon be bankrupt. His argument was that the statements were made in circumstances that were privileged, as he was a ratepayer in the parish and the pursuer was a candidate for the public post of county councillor on one of the divisions of that parish. It was rejected, simply on the ground that he was not a voter in the election with reference to which he was said to have made the statements complained of.

    In Bruce v. Leisk the defender was an elector in the same ward of the burgh in which the pursuer was seeking election as a councillor, so the geographical problem which was the basis of the decision in Anderson v. Hunter did not arise. He was also a member of the ward committee appointed by the ratepayers to recommend suitable candidates for election. The Lord Ordinary, Lord Stormonth Darling, said, at p. 484 that even if the defender were only an elector, it seemed to him that the case was one of privilege and that the pursuer must prove malice. In his view it was contrary to public policy to deny electors latitude in discussing the qualifications of those who were standing for election. His decision was reclaimed to the Inner House, which upheld his decision that the action should be dismissed as the pursuer was not willing to aver malice. Lord President Robertson said, at p. 485; that it was clear case for connecting the language used with the fulfilment of a public duty, and that when electors are considering who shall be elected they are quite entitled to state to other people, similarly concerned, what they know, or believe they know, on the question whether or not the person should be elected. Lord Adam said at pp. 486-487:

     "The question we have to consider is whether an elector has a right and privilege to state to other electors, or to another elector, what is germane to the election, and what he believes at the time to be true? If it is not already implied in the judgment in the case of [Anderson v. Hunter] that where a candidate is standing for an important public office, one of the disagreeable incidents of it which he has to face from the electors is such language as is here complained of, I have no difficulty in laying this down now. If it is alleged that the statement was made maliciously, then he will have an action, but not otherwise."

Lord Kinnear was also of the opinion that the occasion was privileged, as it was clear from the pursuer's own statement that the words of which he complained were uttered when the defender was engaged in the exercise of a public right, with a view to the performance of a public duty.

    Non-disclosure of its sources by a newspaper was the issue in Brims v. Reid & Sons. In that a newspaper had published an anonymous letter concerning the fitness for office of the pursuer who was seeking re-election as a member of a town council and to the public office of Dean of Guild. The publisher refused to disclose the name of the writer of the letter which he had published in his newspaper. It was held that he could not plead privilege in action to the pursuer's action of damages. Lord President Inglis gave his reasons, at p. 1020; in a passage from which is worth quoting at some length, as it covers a number of the issues raised in the present case in the course of the argument:

     "It appears to me that, whatever might be the case if these statements had been made in an editorial article, about which I give no opinion, the fact that they were made in an anonymous letter is quite sufficient for the decision of this case. It is difficult to define the exact extent of the privilege of comment which the editor of a newspaper undoubtedly has to some extent upon the doings of public men; it is difficult to define what the class of public men is with reference to whose doings he enjoys that privilege, or what the kind of accusations that may be brought against the conduct of public men is; and yet again it is difficult to distinguish between the doings of a public man, as a public man, and as a private individual.

     "But we are relieved of all these difficulties in the present case by the fact that the statements complained of are contained in an anonymous letter to the editor. The editor has declined to disclose the author. The effect of this in point of law is not to entitle this letter to be dealt with as if it had appeared in a leading article or in some part of the paper in which the editor speaks for himself. The law is that the editor accepts the position of the anonymous writer with every liability which could have been laid upon that writer if he had been disclosed. The question, then, is whether malice would require to be put in issue against the writer if he had been disclosed.

     "Now, the answer to that question will depend upon who the writer was, and what his connection was with the matters on which he writes. But in the present case we cannot ascertain who the writer was, whether he was a ratepayer in Wick, whether he ever was in Wick in his life, or whether he is even a subject of Her Majesty. In short, we know nothing about him; he is a mere umbra. He is somebody who has libelled the pursuer, and is not in a position to justify that libel by proving its truth, or to justify it by saying that he has a privilege. . . .

     "The newspaper editor can be in no better position then than the anonymous writer himself. Now, if the letter was written with malice, it is conceded that the pursuer is entitled to damages. But how can anyone prove malice on the part of a person of whom he knows nothing at all? What can he tell of his state of mind, or his relation to the matter on which he comments? Or how, on the other hand, can malice in such a case be disproved?"

Lord Shand made it clear, at p. 1021; that, if the question had arisen with reference to editorial comments in a leading article about the conduct of a public man seeking re-election to office on the eve of the election, he would have been in favour of the view that the occasion was privileged. But the writer of an anonymous letter could not be given the benefit of qualified privilege, and the editor of a newspaper could not, by adopting the letter, invest the writer with the privilege which might have attached to his own articles.

    McKerchar v. Cameron was another case involving an anonymous letter published in a local newspaper. The letter contained statements indicating that the pursuer, who was a salaried official, was unfit for his post as a teacher in a public school. It was argued that the ratepayers and inhabitants of the neighbourhood had an interest and a right to know the contents of what was published, but the decision in Brims v. Reid & Sons was followed. It was held that there was no room for the defence of privilege, so there was no need for the pursuer to plead malice. The court did not need to decide whether a member of the public, in attacking any person holding any office under any public body, was entitled to the defence of privilege. But Lord McLaren observed; at p. 386; that it was difficult to see what duty or right there was on the part of a member of the public, as such, to criticise the conduct of a public servant who was in the public employment.

    These cases indicate that the extent of the qualified privilege in relation to discussion of the public conduct of public officials, and especially of those who were seeking election to a public office or re-election, was already the subject of a vigorous debate one hundred years ago. Various strands of thought can be detected. It seems unlikely that the Scottish courts, by the end of the nineteenth century, would have taken the same line as was taken in Duncombe v. Daniell 8 C. & P. 222 where the privilege was held not to be available to an elector who published his statements under his own name in a newspaper. It seems to be implicit in the two Scottish cases which I have mentioned about the publication of anonymous letters by newspapers that the writers of those letters would have been able to argue that they were entitled to the defence of privilege if their names had been disclosed and they had been sued. The newspapers were small circulation, local newspapers. But at least it can be said that these cases were not decided on the narrow ground that publication in a newspaper was in itself enough to rule out the question of privilege.

    As for the classes of persons by whom and about whose conduct comment might be made with the benefit of privilege, the criterion which was being applied was whether they were electors and candidates in the same electoral ward, district or constituency. But there are signs, particularly in the opinion of Lord President Inglis in Brims v. Reid & Sons, of a recognition that people in public positions generally, in regard to their conduct as such, were in a different position from private individuals. The Lord President referred to some of the difficulties in defining the class which have been raised in the present case. But he did not say that that was a fruitless exercise because comment of that kind could never attract the privilege.

    I think that the geographical and temporal limitations which are apparent from the election cases provide a good illustration of the kind of situation which will attract a generic qualified privilege: cases falling within clearly defined limits, within which the elements of duty and interest in the publication of relevant matter will always be found. But that is not to say that there will not be other cases - of which the public conduct of public persons, especially those holding or aspiring to an elected political office, is the clearest example - where the privilege will be available. The difficulty as to these cases is one of definition, not one of principle.