Reynolds v Times Newspapers Ltd  2 AC 127
Publication of defamatory political information not subject to general qualified privilege
The plaintiff was a former Taoiseach (Prime Minister) of Ireland. He began proceedings against a British newspaper publisher in relation to an article which alleged that he had dishonestly mislead parliamentary and cabinet colleagues whilst in office. The defendants pleaded the defence of qualified privilege at common law. The plaintiff was successful at trial.
The Court of Appeal held that the publication was not covered by qualified privilege. In the House of Lords, the defendants argued that the common law should recognise a generic qualified privilege covering the publication of political matters affecting UK citizens, except those proven to have been motivated by malice.
The House of Lords declined to recognise such a category of general qualified privilege for political information as such a privilege would fail to provide adequate protection for reputation. It was not inappropriate to distinguish political information from other matters of serious public concern. The established common law approach to misstatement of fact remains sound. Under the existing common law rules, qualified privilege may apply to political information where there had been a duty to publish the material to the intended recipience and they had an interest in receiving it. The flexibility of the existing common law allows courts to consider individual cases and give appropriate weight to competing factors including the importance of freedom of expression by the media as a “watchdog” on matters of public interest. Nevertheless, where the information is in the political domain, the court should be slow to conclude that publication is not in the public interest.