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Hunt v Times Newspapers Ltd (No. 2)

May 11, 2012

Reference: [2012] EWHC 1220 (QB) 
Court: High Court (Queen's Bench Division)

Judge: Eady J

Date of Judgment: 10 May 2012

 

In the first case dealing with Reynolds privilege in the aftermath of Flood v Times Newspapers Limited, Mr Justice Eady held that the newspapers publisher was entitled to use material which was relevant in order to demonstrate that the story it had published was the result of responsible journalism.

 

Facts

 

David Hunt is suing The Sunday Times over an article they published entitled “Taxpayers fund land purchases from crime lords”.  The article alleges that Mr Hunt was a “crime lord” controlling a large criminal network which included murder, fraud and drug trafficking.  It also alleged that when Mr Hunt was prosecuted ten years earlier he was involved in witness intimidation.  The newspaper pleads justification, referring to police intelligence reports, and Reynolds privilege by appending to its defence 130 pages of redacted documents obtained from the police and the Series Organised Crime Agency (Soca).  

 

Issues

 

The issues before the court were whether it should strike out the newspapers plea of justification alleging that Mr Hunt had used a company to launder the money from his criminal activities, together with some income from prostitution carried on at his property. It also had to consider whether to strike out certain of the pleas the newspaper relied on in its support of its Reynolds defence and finally whether it should be allowed to attach the redacted police and Soca documents to its defence.  Mr Hunt argued that Reynolds privilege did not attach to the police intelligence reports as they only noted their uncorroborated beliefs of his involvement in criminal activities and unsuccessful police investigations.

 

Mr Justice Eady held that the plea of justification was legitimate as it was evident what case Mr Hunt had to meet and there was no reason to assume that it would place unfair burdens upon him by way of disclosure or the gathering of evidence.  In regards to the publisher relying on Reynolds privilege, the judge agreed that the article was of public interest.  The next issue to consider was how responsible the underlying preparation of the article was, having in mind the seriousness of the allegations and the fact that they were not confined to the reporting of mere accusation, inquires or reasonable grounds to suspect.  The newspaper’s pleas which did not support an allegation that Mr Hunt was guilty of criminal activity were struck out.  However, the pleas which could potentially be relied upon to establish responsible journalism were allowed. This included the plea referring to a police intelligence report dealing with Mr Hunt’s alleged criminal activities, confirming what the paper was told by its sources.  The paper’s pleas referring to a report where an investigating police officer believed he and other officers were in danger from Mr Hunt was allowed.  While there was no evidence that significant independent verification of the allegations contained in that intelligence report had been carried out, however in such exceptional circumstances it was held not to impose such a burden on journalists.  Further, the newspaper’s plea of Mr Hunt’s general bad reputation was acceptable, and lack of particularisation was not a valid objection since such pleas were supposed to consist of general assertions.

 

The documents relied upon in the newspaper’s pleading were permitted, provided that they were relevant to responsible journalism, in supporting the Times’ decision to publish the actual allegations made. Selisto v Finland [2005] was considered by Mr Justice Eady; this case established that allegations to the police might, in some circumstances, be reported under the ambit of privilege because they had been reported in a police document.  It may be applicable to take into consideration the consistency, quality, frequency and pervasiveness of such allegations.  However, this does not necessarily mean that such a collection of facts would support a defence of responsible journalism in relation to an allegation of guilt.  The judge also considered White v Sweden [2007] and how compelling the evidence was as a whole and how far the journalist had relied upon this.  

 

Decision

Mr Hunt's the application to strike out the Reynolds Defence was denied.  All of the passages in question could potentially form the basis for a plea of ‘responsible journalism’ and, as a result, they ought to be left for consideration by the trial judge.

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