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    Libel trials: “honest comment”

    A dispute between a band and a bookings agency has resulted in a landmark Supreme Court ruling on libel law, after comments by the defendant alleging unprofessionalism.

    In Spiller v Joseph [2010] UKSC 53, the court unanimously upheld the defence of “fair comment” and renamed it as “honest comment”, reducing the level of factual detail that must be provided by the publisher in order to rely on the defence.

    In his judgment, Lord Phillips questioned the need for juries in libel trials, stating: “The issues are often complex and jury trial simply invites expensive interlocutory battles, such as the one before this court, which attempt to pre-empt issues from going before the jury.”

    Delivering his judgment, Lord Walker said: “…the defence of fair comment (now to be called honest comment) originated in a narrow form in a society very different from today’s.  

    “It was a society in which writers, artists and musicians were supposed to place their works, like wares displayed at market, before a relatively small educated and socially elevated class, and it was in the context of published criticism of their works that the defence developed.”

    Society and its concerns had changed, he said.  “The creation of a common base of information shared by those who watch television and use the internet has had an effect which can hardly be overstated.

    “Millions now talk, and thousands comment in electronically transmitted words, about recent events of which they have learned from television or the internet.  Many of the events and the comments on them are no doubt trivial and ephemeral, but from time to time (as the present appeal shows) libel law has to engage with them.

    The test for identifying the factual basis of honest comment must be flexible enough to allow for this type of case, in which a passing reference to the previous night’s celebrity show would be regarded by most of the public, and may sometimes have to be regarded by the law, as a sufficient factual basis.”

    “New Law Journal”: 10.12.10