HomeInsightsHigh Court finds that contributor to defamatory publications could rely on public interest defence.

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The defendant, David de Freitas, was the father of Eleanor de Freitas, who had committed suicide shortly before the start of a trial in which she was being prosecuted for perverting the course of justice by having falsely accused the claimant in this case, Alexander Economou, of rape.  Ms de Freitas, who had suffered from bipolar affective disorder, had denied the charge.

When the Coroner in the inquest into Ms de Freitas’s death had initially refused to consider the role of the Crown Prosecution Service in his daughter’s death, the defendant, Mr de Freitas, had gone to the press.  Various articles and broadcasts were subsequently published that were defamatory of Mr Economou.

Mr de Freitas argued that he was entitled to rely on the statutory defence for publication on a matter of public interest under s 4 of the defamation Act 2013.  The publications were found to concern a matter of public interest.  The question was whether Mr de Freitas had reasonably believed that to be the case.

Mr Economou argued that the reasonable belief requirement had not been met because Mr de Freitas had ignored everything that tended to contradict his view, had not thought about how what he said might harm Mr Economou’s reputation, and did not care.  Mr Economou also argued that the media’s strategy had been inherently improper and that the purpose of Mr de Freitas going public was to put pressure on the Coroner to make a decision in favour of Mr de Freitas for fear of public criticism if he did not.

Mr de Freitas accepted in his evidence that in contributing to, causing, authorising, and making the offending publications he did not focus on the impact these might have on Mr Economou’s reputation.  Further, the court found that what he had had in mind was to show the Coroner that the issues he wished to have investigated, and which he (rightly) believed to be matters of public interest were recognised as such by others. This was not improper, or illogical, the court said.

The facts were that the CPS had decided it was happy to use a video-recorded interview Ms de Freitas had given, meaning that she would not have needed to attend court to give evidence.  However, Ms de Freitas had not known that at the time she took her own life.  In the court’s view, Mr de Freitas had reasonably believed at the time he had gone to press that had the CPS disclosed its intentions in a more timely way, Ms de Freitas might not have taken her own life.

The court found that a judgment in favour of Mr Economou would represent an interference with Mr de Freitas’ free speech rights out of any reasonable proportion to the need to protect and vindicate Mr Economou’s reputation.

As for Reynolds privilege, Mr de Freitas was not a journalist, the court said.  His role was closer to that of a source or contributor than that of a journalist.  It was wrong in principle, the court said, to require an individual who contributes material for inclusion or use in an article or broadcast in the media to undertake all the enquiries that would be expected of a journalist.  Mr de Freitas could, therefore, rely on the public interest defence.  (Alexander Economou v David de Freitas [2016] EWHC 1853 (QB) (27 July 2016) — to read the judgment in full, click here).

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