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Media businesses are being warned to take note of a recent case heard in the Supreme Court

Media Businesses to Take Care Not to Cause Offence

Oct 2019

Media businesses are being warned to take note of a recent case heard in the Supreme Court, the judgement from which has grave implications for those businesses that do not have the right insurance protection in place to fight libel actions.

The case involved French aerospace engineer Bruno Lachaux, who brought libel action against various media titles, following the reporting of his divorce case. Various outlets, including the Huffington Post, the Independent and the Evening Standard were sued for libel, after allegations regarding Mr Lachaux’s treatment of his wife and child appeared in print.

Whilst the Huffington Post settled the action in 2018, agreeing to pay what is reported to have been “significant” damages and legal costs , the Independent (the former print edition) and the Evening Standard, took their case to the Supreme Court.

The case tested a revision to the English and Welsh libel laws, which was introduced by the coalition government after the Lib Dem party campaigned for change. Their aim was to prevent the volume of libel action that was giving the UK a reputation as the world’s libel capital and promote freedom of speech. Their efforts appeared to have succeeded, when the revision to the law stated that a successful libel claimant would need to prove that “serious harm” had been done to their reputation, through whatever had appeared in print, in order to win an action.

In what proved a surprise to the two media outlets, the ruling judge in the Lachaux case stated that the required “harm” threshold had been reached, given what had been published. The warning to other publishers is there to be seen, even though the two outlets are still arguing that their story was carried in the public interest, and may seek to challenge the judgement on that basis.

Whilst the media world may not welcome the ruling itself, the case has demonstrated that the ‘serious harm’ consideration will now be used as a basis for judgement, which does boost the cause of free speech. As such, groups who campaign for freedom of speech have welcomed the judge’s ruling, believing libel cases will not be as easily won by claimants purporting to have been adversely affected by what has been published.

Nevertheless, libel actions can still be brought and prove costly, as this case has also demonstrated. Anyone in the world of publishing should take note of this ruling, however large or small a concern they are, and ensure that, if passing opinions or describing people in any way that could cause offence, they have the right insurances in place to defend any legal actions that result.

The ‘world of publishing’ can be very broadly defined in a world where many have become publishers of their opinions through social media. Companies should take care when commenting on competitors or suppliers, as any negative view could result in them being sued. The best advice is probably to not comment on other businesses or individuals at all.

Those who work in businesses in which freedom of speech is the company’s cornerstone, need to talk to an insurance broker about their role and the risks it presents, in terms of libel and legal action. An expert broker will be able to offer guidance on the cover and level of protection required, ensuring a legal action does not decimate your business. To get the ball rolling with this, please use our  ‘Find a Local Broker’ tool, remembering what may seem inoffensive to one person, can be highly upsetting to another.