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Victory for responsible journalism likely to boost campaign to reform libel laws

13 August 2012
In a recent High Court decision, it was held that Nature Publishing Group ("NPG"), publisher of the scientific journal Nature, had not defamed physicist and engineer Mohamed El Naschie, editor of the journal Chaos, Solitons & Fractals, by suggesting that he had abused his position in order to publish an excessive number of his own articles.

On 6 July 2012, the High Court finally decided that the article in Nature was substantially true and accordingly that its publisher could rely upon the defence of justification.  NPG was also able to successfully rely upon the defences of honest comment (an honest opinion on a matter of public interest made without malice) and Reynolds privilege (a qualified privilege for publication of defamatory statements in the public interest) in order to defeat Mr El Naschie's libel claim. After more than three years and £1.5 million spent by NPG in defending the claim, the High Court held that Mr El Naschie's claim was weak and decided in favour of NPG on all material issues.

This outcome should give fresh impetus to the campaign to reform the libel laws of England and Wales. At present, the law is widely believed to be in favour of claimants in a number of respects.  One example of this is that it requires defendants to prove the truth of all statements in order to rely on the defence of justification, rather than obliging claimants to establish that statements are false at the outset. While NPG's victory shows that defendants are able to successfully defend strong cases, it also shows that it takes more stamina and money to do so than many publishers can afford.

The proposed Defamation Bill includes new defences such as qualified privilege for peer-reviewed publications and a new statutory defence of responsible publication on matters of public interest (essentially the codification of the common law Reynolds defence).  However, that has not prevented criticism of the Bill, with a number of commentators suggesting that these proposals do not go far enough.  As the Defamation Bill continues to work its way through Parliament, it remains to see whether the final version contains the necessary provisions to redress the perceived imbalance between claimants and defendants.

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