British Libel Law Relaxed


The Law Lords, the U.K.'s highest court, yesterday ruled that news organizations may report allegations about public figures without running afoul of Britain's notoriously stringent libel prohibition if they act responsibly and the story is in the public interest. The case involved a businessman who sued The Wall Street Journal over a story that mentioned his company as one of several whose bank accounts were being monitored by the Saudi government as possible conduits of money for terrorist groups. Under the traditional libel standard, the burden would have been on the paper to prove the accuracy of its reporting in court—an impossibility in this case, which dealt with a clandestine program of a government not known for its openness. The decision is expected to make news organizations with British audiences less nervous about pursuing stories that reflect negatively on public figures who might sue them (pretty much any story worth pursuing, in other words). "Going forward," says The Wall Street Journal's general counsel, "this decision means that if you're a quality news organization you can fully and fairly cover the important issues of the day without this nagging problem of having a libel judge in London basically engage in an autopsy of every single thing you did and decide whether he agrees with your editorial judgment."