Reynolds V Times Newspapers
David Rolph, ed., Landmark Cases in Defamation Law (Sydney: Hart Publishing, 2019)
20 Pages Posted: 25 May 2018 Last revised: 26 Jun 2020
Date Written: February 1, 2018
Reynolds is a landmark defamation case because it brought fault, in the form of reasonableness, into the law. In so doing, it tilted the balance between reputation and speech in England, affected the way journalists do their work, and influenced the law throughout the common law world. This is the story of Reynolds and its famous ‘privilege’.
In some ways, Reynolds is a simple case about whether a newspaper defamed a politician when it implied the politician was a liar and failed to publish his explanation of events. At issue was whether an honest but mistaken news article about a politician was protected by the defence of qualified privilege. In holding that the existing law of qualified privilege could afford a defence for media who report on matters of public interest, although not on the facts of the case, Reynolds seems rather uninteresting. But its important innovation was its holding that media have a duty to communicate on matters of public interest, and the public a reciprocal interest in receiving the information, so long as the defendant behaved responsibly in publishing. It set out criteria to consider in assessing responsibleness. In so doing, Reynolds introduced a fault-based defence into the otherwise strict-liability tort of defamation. The House of Lords’ decision was fairly narrow (applying the existing law of qualified privilege, applying to journalism, setting strict criteria of responsibleness), and some judges were initially hostile even to that narrow extension of the doctrine. Nevertheless, subsequent cases and legislation in the England and abroad have expanded the scope of Reynolds privilege. Reynolds’ fault-based defence, or something like it, can now be found in defamation law throughout the common law world.
This chapter examines the history and influence of Reynolds to date, and also imagines what its future influence might me. Specifically, given the flexibility of the responsible communication test, it should withstand changes in communications technology and changes to the law of defamation.
Keywords: defamation, responsible journalism, responsible communication, libel, slander, fault
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