Friday, October 13, 2006


Marvellous free-speech ruling by the Law Lords:

The British media has won the freedom to publish allegations about public figures free from the threat of libel laws in a landmark House of Lords ruling. In a ground-breaking unanimous judgment yesterday, the law lords ruled in favour of a public interest defence that brings English law more into line with the freedom enjoyed by the US media. In future, journalists will be free to publish material if they act responsibly and in the public interest and they will not be at risk of libel damages even if relevant allegations later prove to be untrue.

The law lords, Britain's top judges, said that the media was entitled to publish defamatory allegations as part of its duty of neutral reporting of news, or if it believed them to be of substance and they raised matters of public interest. The ruling came in an appeal by the Wall Street Journal Europe against a High Court decision, backed by the Court of Appeal, that it should pay 40,000 pounds damages to a billionaire Saudi car dealer, Mohammed Jameel, whose family owns Harwell Motors in Oxford. The story, published in February 2002, said that bank accounts associated with a number of prominent Saudi citizens, including Mr Jameel's family and its businesses, had been monitored by Saudi authorities at the request of US authorities to ensure no money was provided intentionally or knowingly to support terrorists.

Lord Hoffman, giving the lead judgment, said that the article was a perfect example of journalism for which the public interest defence should be available. It was for judges to apply the public interest test but that publication easily passed that test, he said. Its thrust was to inform the public that the Saudis were cooperating with the US Treasury and monitoring accounts. "It was a serious contribution in measured tone to a subject of very considerable importance." It could not be proved true because the existence of covert surveillance would be impossible to prove by evidence in open court. But that did not mean it did not happen. The newspaper was entitled to report even serious defamations against individuals, so long as they "made a real contribution to the public interest element in the article".

The ruling also said that judges, with "leisure and hindsight" should not second-guess editorial decisions made in busy newsrooms. The key test was whether a media organisation or newspaper acted fairly and responsibly in gathering and publishing the information, the judges said. If the reporter and editor did so, and the information was of public importance, then the fact that it contained relevant but defamatory allegations against prominent people would not permit them to recover libel damages.

Baroness Hale of Richmond in her judgment said: "We need more such serious journalism in this country and our defamation law should encourage rather than discourage it."

Geoffrey Robertson, QC, author of Media Law, the standard textbook, who argued the case for the Journal, said: "The decision provides the media in Britain with an increased freedom to publish newsworthy stories. "This is not a licence for irresponsible journalism. It frees investigative journalism from the chilling effect of libel actions, so long as the treatment is not sensational and the editorial behaviour is responsible. "It will enable, and indeed encourage, editors to place more information into the public domain than at present. "The decision is an important step in moving freedom of speech closer to that enjoyed by the US media under the First Amendment."

Dan Tench, a media partner at Olswang, said: "The judgment has enormous significance for serious journalism. Previously, the focus of libel hearings defended on the basis of the Reynolds defence was always on the newspaper, which faced an uphill struggle to demonstrate that it had acted responsibly. "But following today's ruling, it seems that as long as a publisher can show that it was writing serious journalism that engages the genuine public interest and so deserves to be protected, the focus will shift onto the claimant, who will need to prove not only that there were serious defects in the way the article was put together but also that those defects realistically led to the article as published being unfair."

Mr Jameel issued a statement today emphasising that he had only ever been interested in clearing his name. Mr Jameel, whose 5.4 million pound gift saw the opening last week of the Victoria and Albert Museum's new gallery of Islamic Art, said: "What the Wall Street Journal wrote in February 2002 was that the bank accounts of the ALJ Group were being monitored at the request of the US authorities. "That was not true. Mr Justice Eady and the Court of Appeal ruled that I was libelled. The House of Lords ruled that I was not because it was reasonable for the Wall Street Journal Europe to print something that was false. So be it. I was only ever interested in proving that the allegations were untrue."


British firm bans 'ageist' birthday cards

Greetings cards passed around the office and signed for a colleague's birthday have been banned by a company in Bournemouth. Alan and Thomas Ltd said they stopped the card signings, as jokes or comments about someone's age could be offensive under new age discrimination laws. The firm's boss, Julian Boughton, said they had taken legal advice. Directors of the Bournemouth-based insurance brokers will instead send a card on behalf of all staff.

But speaking to BBC News, one former member of staff who did not wish to be named, said the move was "extreme". They told BBC News: "I think it's a bit draconian really, over the top and quite ridiculous. "I don't see how a jokey birthday card can be seen as discrimination or harassment. And I wonder if they actually asked the staff what they think."

The company said legal advice was sought after the Employment Equality (Age) Regulations 2006 came into force this month. Mr Boughton, managing director, said: "Having considered the potential exposures for our employees and our business, we have taken the decision to change the practice of issuing a generically signed card for any given individual's birthday. "Instead we have decided that the company will send a card to each staff member on their birthday, signed by the directors."



Women are training themselves not to fall in love because relationships are skewed in favour of men, Fay Weldon said yesterday. The novelist and commentator told an audience at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival that women were no longer as romantic as they were a generation ago, to the detriment of their happiness.

Weldon, 75, argued that having been liberated by the Pill in the 1960s women were paying the price of trying to behave like men. "Our generation fell in love all the time," she said. "We sacrificed everything. Now women are much more practical and hard-headed. However, in the pursuit of professional, social and domestic fulfilment many women are failing to accept that, hormonally and physiologically, they are programmed to experience life differently from men," she said. "I think we need to make the most of being women as women, not aspirational men. The assumptions we all make now as to what comprises a good relationship are upside down. The differences between men and females are what we should be celebrating."

Weldon's new book What Makes Women Happy has outraged feminists because of its suggestion that women should fake orgasms to keep their men content. Commentators pilloried her for encouraging women to accept submissiveness in the most intimate area of their relationships. But Weldon believes that sex is the area where men and women come closest to making a sincere emotional connection. The pursuit of intimacy in all aspects of their lives is a false goal, she says. Better to give each other space to indulge the genders' different impulses, she says. "The more we know, the less easy we find it to get on together, I fear," she said.

Weldon's critics accuse her of losing touch with the aspirations of women, a far cry from the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, when she was regarded as a high-profile feminist with novels such as The Life and Loves of a She-Devil, which celebrated women being bad. Her own life, as she recorded it in her 2002 memoir Auto Da Fay, has included a series of complicated relationships and snatched periods of joy, leading to two divorces and four children. Her first husband pimped her to a Soho nightclub because he had no interest in satisfying her sexually and she once slept with a market trader for a pair of nylons.

Happiness, her experiences have taught her, is about aspiring to virtue. Shopping, chocolate and the other "consolations" that women comfort themselves with are frivolous but valuable diversions. "Nothing makes a woman happy for more than ten minutes at a time because after that the doubts and anxieties arrive. You can't help it as a woman. It's not fair: men can be happy for the time of a football match. They have the advantage of single-tasking. Multi-tasking, which women are so proud of, is a great drawback because it limits the periods of our pure happiness. We are training ourselves out of being in love because it is so unfair. "I think for most women that intense love brings unhappiness with it. A lot of our grief comes when one's instincts are at odds with socialisation."


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