Thaw In Libel Chill?

Canadian journalists haven't had much to celebrate in the last 15 years or so, what with all the downsizing, cross-ownership and erosion of financial stability due to the proliferation of free information sources on the Internet (many of them cribbed from legit news outlets). Nutbars that we are, we think there's immense value in what we do. Plenty of other people would presumably agree. There is a segment of society, however, for whom an understaffed and overworked press is heaven-sent. This summer I interviewed former CBC radio and TV broadcaster Mary-Lou Finlay (pictured) prior to her appearance at the Festival of Words in Moose Jaw. In response to a question about whether it served the purpose of political and economic elites in Canada to have a weakened CBC, she replied "I've talked to people in every political party [that's held power in Ottawa] and without exception, they say their leaders hated the CBC because of the accountability it imposed on them. But if they're honest, they have to recognize that the whole system works better if you have a healthy broadcasting environment."

Greater resources for media outlets are definitely one part of that equation. Another, in Canada anyway, is the freedom to do solid investigative journalism. Under existing libel laws, journalists could be sued for anything they wrote/published/broadcast that damaged another person's reputation. If sued, the onus was on the journalist to prove the truth of their statement. In legal circles, that's what's known as a reverse onus provision. In a typical court case, it's up to the plaintiff to prove their claim. Not so with libel law, where journalists were generally required to prove their innocence.

Recognizing the importance of a vigorous and vigilant press, other countries like the U.S. and Australia provided journalists with a defence to libel if they genuinely believed, based on the research they'd done and interviews they'd conducted, that the story they did was true. In Canada, that defence was not possible -- until today, that is, when the Supreme Court of Canada, in separate libel cases against the Ottawa Citizen and Toronto Star, ruled that the defence of "responsible communication" should be available to journalists to defend themselves against libel actions.

That doesn't mean that journalists now have carte blanche to shred anyone they want. But under the old law, media outlets often shied away from controversial stories involving powerful individuals and organizations out of fear that if they ran them they would be sued for libel and possibly bankrupted by a lucrative judgment against them. "Libel chill" is the term used to describe that situation. And in its judgement today, the Supreme Court said that impacted negatively on the public interest by unduly infringing on freedom of expression.

Good for them. Here's the CBC report here.

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