Thursday, February 03, 2005

Defamation


While the United States has defamation laws which make it very difficult to hold a media company liable for publishing false information about a public figure, many European nations do not. The Wall Street Journal, faced with that reality in England, has been working to create a "public interest" exception to British libel laws, under which "newspapers could print untrue and defamatory information if they could prove it was in the public interest and was the product of responsible journalism.". The Journal's lawyer described the situation:
"There is a flaw in the qualified privilege defence that is highlighted where you have five anonymous sources that cannot come to court. It is obviously a major concern for people who want to see a free flow of information."
This creates an interesting tension between "protecting an anonymous source" and avoiding liability. While there is certainly something to the argument that there is a "chilling effect" if you make a newspaper reveal its anonymous sources in order to defeat a libel action, there is also something to the argument that if a newspaper chooses to premise a story entirely upon anonymous sources who will refuse to come forward if the story proves false, the newspaper should be willing to accept the consequence of that decision. A cost of doing business (in that manner).

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