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THE LAW OF LIBEL., Issue 10436, 4 October 1897
THE LAW OF LIBEL.
An action broughc in Sydney by Joseph Kelly, a watchmaker, against the 'Daily Telegraph' Newspaper Company for alleged libel has recently been tried before Mr Justice Stephen and a jury of four, the result being a verdict for the defendants. The article complained of had reference to the arrest of the plaintiff on a charge of having counterfeit coin in his possession, and did not go further than narrate, the circumstances of the case, as they transpired in the Police Court. Damages were laid at £I,OOO, and a strong Bat were engaged, Mr Wise leading for the defendants.
Either.by arrangement with his colleagues on the Bench, or by the accident of circumstances, Mr-Justice StepSkntappears:tohave very frequently presided over the 'trial of libel actions a duty which, under the legislation relating to libel andi slander as it exists in New South Wales, as-well as New Zealand, is not one any judge would be likely to covet. A law which is at variance with common sense and repugnant to the spirit of the age must always impose upon the judge who has to expound its tenor and interpret its inconsistencies to a jury a most compromising task. The conscientious care with which Judge Stephen discharged the function of explaining to the jury the leading points of the case above referred to is apparent throughout his summing up, but, nevertheless, he would seem, perhaps naturally enough, to have a mind more in sympathy with the obsolete ideas embodied in discredited statutes than with the broader sentiments which prevail in regard to the subject at the present day. His Honor commenced by saying that Mr Wise, the counsel for the defendant newspaper company, had professed, and no doubt felt, that a grave responsibility rested upon him, because, in his view of the matter, it appeared that the decision of the case would very materially touch the interests of the public, inasmuch as it would affect the liberty of the Press and of other persons to publish reports with respect to legal proceedings, and thus indirectly affect the administration of justice. His Honor proceeded to say _ that he realised that his own responsibility in laying down the law was greater still. He found a very great difficulty existing in the way of proprietors and editors of newspapers with regard to the law of libel, and he thought it would be a very desirable thing, if it could be done, that some table of rules and regulations should be drawn up as a guide to what was right and what was wrong in such matters. The first question they had to consider in the case before them was whether tho article was defamatory. If the article did not hold the plaintiff up to public disgrace and scandal, or did not defame his character, or set him before the world as a dishonest person, they should find at once for the defendant. The defendant's counsel, he went on to say, had asked them in as rimny words : Would they hold that these ihirrgiuwere not to be published. Was there, counsel asked, to 'be absolute silence on the other hand? He (the Judge) would say absolute silence if it prevented a man's character being damaged. He did not know that it was " a matter of vast public importance " that the arrest of Tom, Dick, and Harry "should be chronicled to the public. It "might or it might not be. Opinions " might differ on the point." When, His Honor continued, Mr Wise asked the jury were they going to allow such a thing, he asked them to do what they could not do. They must take the law from the Judge, but it was for them to say whether the article complained of was a libel or not. It was true that the law was gradually developing itself in favor of the newspapers, which, in -many instances, had the advantage of being considered as accredited organs for the dissemination of public information, and were really sanctioned by the general public feeling. Mr Wise, on behalf of the defendant company, had, His Honor said, submitted to the jury the argument that, no matter whether the article was defamatory or not, it was a correct account of what took place, and that, therefore, the publication was justifiable. This argument His Honor declared to be untenable ; "he had not the slightest hesitation in " saying that the proposition could not be "maintained." In regard to deciding whether th'e matter of the alleged libel was defamatory or not, His Honor advised the jury to put themselves in the position of men sitting down at the breakfast table and reading the article complained of. If under such conditions the article would present the plaintiff in the aspect, not only of a man who was suspected of the crime which was the charged reason for his being arrested and his premises ransacked by the police, but of a man who was really guilty, then the article was defamatory. This instruction to the Sydney jury, which we believe to be sound according to the law as it stands in this Colony, as well as in New South Wales, lays the onus on the newspaper Press of taking most assiduous care in the reports of court proceedings, and in news paragraphs, not to leave any room for mis- [ apprehension as to whether, even by implication, accused persons are referred to as guilty, or presumably guilty, of offences with which they are charged. A perversion [ by not over intelligent people, from the sense in which language is employed, may riot impossibly involve serious consequences to the, publishing newspaper. It may be remembered, that' the late Sir Patrick Booklet, in tho Bill which he repeatedly introduced for the amendment of the law of libel in New Zealand, provided,-among other much required reforms, that reports of proceedings in any law courts, if published in good faith and without malice, should be privileged.
THE LAW OF LIBEL., Issue 10436, 4 October 1897
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