Court reporting and absolute privilege from defamation claims

Late last year, Attorney General Maire Whelan called for a review of Irish defamation law in so far as it affects court reporters.

[Court reporters] should not have to fear a “simple oversight, omission or error” in reporting court proceedings exposes them to risks of litigation, or claims in damages, with consequent risks to their livelihood. There should be at least a debate, and consideration, of enshrining into Irish law a provision that no report of court proceedings should be actionable in defamation unless there is proof of “malice”, Ms Whelan said.

A recent defamation claim against the Irish Examiner relating to reports published on that newspaper’s website raised precisely this issue (Philpott v. Irish Examiner Limited [2016] IEHC 62). The judgment by Mr Justice Max Barrett delivered last week adds some interesting commentary to the topic.

Section 33 of the Defamation Act 2009 allows for an application to be made to a court prohibiting the publication or further publication of a statement if it is defamatory and there would be no defence available justifying its publication. The relevant defence here is of court reporting which, if done properly, is absolutely privileged.

In this case the plaintiff had been CEO of a healthcare organisation in Cork and, apparently due to his view of shortcomings in the operation of the organisation, his employment ceased. He instituted employment law proceedings which were eventually settled. However, he objected to two reports carried in the Irish Examiner (article 1; article 2) relating to his employment law proceedings and sought an order under section 33 prohibiting the further publication of two relevant articles on the Irish Examiner website. This required him to satisfy the court of both requirements of section 33, mentioned above.

Barrett J noted that the barristers in the case could not identify any previous Irish case-law that examined the nature of the test to be applied under section 33 but concluded:

[I]t seems to the court that the tapestry of law woven by the Oireachtas does not invariably or even generally require additional embroidery by the courts. The Act of 2009 posits simply that there are three criteria which must be satisfied before an order can issue under s.33, [namely]:

(1) is the statement complained of defamatory?

(2) does the defendant have a defence to the claim of defamation?

(3) is that defence reasonably likely to succeed?

Barrett J quoted both articles objected to in full. In relation to the first one, the key “error” complained of was that something asserted by one party in the proceedings was reported as fact (ie. an allegation was represented in the article as fact). However, Barrett J held that erroneous statement did not injure the plaintiff’s reputation. He referred to other elements of the report complained of and “struggle[d] to see that there is much divergence of real substance” between the article and the relevant elements of the Circuit Court judgment that it was reporting on.

In fact, Barrett J felt that the manner in which the complaints regarding the first article was put forward amounted to a “dissection” which “represents a highly unnatural manner of reading.” He posed the issue as follows:

What are the key learnings that someone viewing the … article would likely glean? First, that there was an employment-related dispute between Mr Philpott and his onetime employers. Second, that Mr Philpott had been dismissed, ostensibly because of some sort of difficulties between him and other staff. Third, that Mr Philpott had made various allegations about how Marymount was run – and, perhaps implicitly, that this might have been the real reason for his dismissal. Fourth, that a Circuit Court judge had gone through Mr Philpott’s allegations in some detail and did not find them credible, though he did not doubt that they were sincerely made. In short, the reader would have garnered the truth of matters, as this Court did on its first reading of the article. Anyone who elected to run a fine tooth-comb over every element of the article would have ended up with the same understanding.

In relation to the second article, Barrett J was “mystified” by the plaintiff’s concerns.

The whole thrust of the article is that peace has broken out between the parties, that all has been resolved, that Marymount wishes Mr Philpott well, that a line has been drawn under past events and that everybody is now moving on.

He went on to make some important points about court reporting.

Court reports are not just of interest to the public; they meet a great public interest. In a liberal democracy that prizes individual freedoms, all branches of government are rightly subject to the scrutiny of an ever-watchful public. Reporters perform an essential role in ensuring that members of the public learn of what is being done in their courts and why … This is so important a task that – except insofar as is necessary to ensure that the right of every citizen to her or his good name is protected and capable of vindication – the media must go relatively unconstrained in their efforts. Our individual freedoms are more fully assured in the collective freedom of journalists to discharge the role so eloquently identified for them by the late President Kennedy, in a speech to the American Newspaper Publishers Association back in 1961, being “not primarily to amuse and entertain, not to emphasise the trivial and the sentimental, not to simply ‘give the public what it wants’ – but to inform, to arouse, to reflect, to state our dangers and our opportunities, to indicate our crises and our choices, to lead, mould, educate and sometimes even anger public opinion”, and, it might be added, not just to report, but to comment.

There had also been some objection by the plaintiff that certain aspects of the his Circuit Court case were not reported at all. Barrett J said:

To the extent that it is suggested that a court reporter needs to be present for any, let alone every, aspect of court proceedings on which s/he reports, this proposition is entirely rejected by this Court.

Reporters do not have a free hand to report on cases they have not attended: principles have already been developed by the courts outlining that a report must be fair and accurate to benefit from a defence to a defamation claim. A fair and accurate report on a written judgment from a court could not give rise to a claim for damages, for example, even though the reporter might not have attended any of the hearings.

Ultimately, Barrett J held that neither of the articles were defamatory, that the Irish Examiner would have a full defence to any claim of defamation on the basis of absolute privilege and that such a defence would be likely to succeed at trial. Therefore, all of the plaintiff’s claims were dismissed.

The case is an interesting, up-to-date statement of the law on court reporting in Ireland and obviously some of the comments made in the judgment chime with the Attorney General’s views. It may be that the judgment would hold back the tide of defamation claims against publishers somewhat and might alleviate the need for further legislation on the topic (subject to any appeal, of course).

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