This may be good for the media but it is bad for my smug sense of self satisfaction

Came across this in the Globe this morning. If you can’t be bothered, the story basically says that a court ruling in Ontario has created a “public interest principle” in cases of libel cases involving the news media. Before this ruling, Canadian libel law was fairly protective of people’s reputations. Unlike in the US, where the word “alledgedly” all but absolves news media of liability for libel (right Jim Rome?), Canadian media have had to be very wary of damaging someone’s reputation based on accusations and even criminal charges.

The Coles Notes version for media law students, when dealing with criminal acts for example, went something like this: you can link someone to criminal charges, not criminal acts. You could report that “a man was shot to death in downtown Toronto” and that “John Doe, 26, of Toronto was charged with first degree murder.” You couldn’t, however, report that “John Doe, 26, of Toronto was charged with first degree murder in connection with a shooting death in downtown Toronto.” A lot of media did, of course, but they were libelling John Doe, even if they were never sued for it. You can report facts (a man was shot, a man was charged) but you have to leave it to the reader to draw connections.

Now, libel is not all about criminal allegations but that under-appreciated nuance was the source of many a self-indulgent rant by yours truly back in my Megalomedia days. However, based on my own personal experience, I am probably willing to forgo future rants if the spirit of the new predicent pans out as the judge expects it to.

In making his ruling, Mr. Justice Robert Sharpe said:

The threat of litigation under a legal regime that leaves no margin for error, even where the speaker took all reasonable steps to verify the facts, discourages free and open debate on matters of public importance.

Amen to that. Back in my day as editor in chief of a campus newspaper, I was sued for libel based on an article we ran about a university lecturer’s various run ins with the law (another fun quirk of Canadian libel law – the editor in chief is personally named in the suit along with the publisher. Most fiscally-solvent papers have insurance for their staff in these situations but, at the time, my paper was not so solvent).

We were given erroneous information by a police officer, published it, and were sued as a result. And under Canadian law, we were liable. In the end the matter was settled out of court (a great story to share over beers, if you are interested, but not so suited for a public blog). While I am no legal expert, I get the impression that we might have been covered by this new precedent.

Now, with all that said, I am not ready to give my Ebertian thumbs up to this new ruling – at least not yet. While I agree with the Judge’s statement about free debate being somewhat stifled under the old regime, it certainly didn’t stop a whole bunch of media outlets from libelling the hell out of some people. I am worried that this will be a ‘give an inch, take a mile’ scenario.

If the media are responsible and use their new powers for good (to coin a phrase), then this is a big victory for free and open debate. If they are irresponsible, though… well I can count on fodder for a few more spirited rants.

1 comment

  1. It’s funny you should mention this and that this case has come up now. I heard through various grapevines I am adjacent to that outraged Americans who wanted to sue American publications for perceived wrongs — but found the task too difficult in American courts where the burden was largely on them — have turned their attention north of the border and sued here.
    They have a little bit more of a case now given Canadian websites are easily viewed in the states.
    I wonder if that phenomenon is playing a rule in a move by the Canadian legal system to bend a little to the defendant’s side of things.

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