MEDIA

Tough talk about libel

CHRIS WOOD May 2 1988
MEDIA

Tough talk about libel

CHRIS WOOD May 2 1988

Tough talk about libel

The vitriolic attack on current journalistic practices was aimed directly at a gathering of 450, which included the most influential publishers and editors in the country. They were in Toronto last week for the annual meeting of The Canadian Press (CP), the co-operative news agency that is owned by the country’s daily newspapers. There, Conrad Black, whose Toronto-based Hollinger Inc. owns a string of Canadian and American newspapers, Saturday Night magazine and London’s Daily Telegraph, charged that the Canadian media had a callous disregard for individual reputations. The press, declared Black, assumes “an unlimited right to build or destroy the reputations of whomever it wishes.” Black has been a frequent critic of journalism. And his remarks last week indicated that he has not changed his opinion. Black said that “reckless” journalists usually resort to “spurious apologia or glazed prevarication” when forced to defend allegedly libellous statements. And he criticized employers for seeking new laws that he said would “make judgment for the plaintiff practically unattainable.”

That pointed remark clashed with a speech that CP chairman Patrick O’Callaghan made to the meeting one day earlier. O’Callaghan, the publisher of the Calgary Herald, had called for legislative changes in Canadian libel law. He did so on the grounds that heavy libel judgments discouraged Canadian newspapers from undertaking what he called “hard-hitting investigative reporting.” O’Callaghan specifically criticized a provision known to lawyers as “reverse onus.” It requires a defendant to prove that a story was factual or fair comment. That provision, declared O’Callaghan, implies that “a newspaper is guilty until it proves itself innocent.”

By coincidence, The Ottawa Citizen has challenged the constitutionality of reverse onus in its defence against a libel suit that former federal defence minister Robert Coates launched in February, 1985. Coates is suing the paper for publishing details of a 1984 visit that he made to a striptease club in Lahr, West Germany. The Nova Scotia Supreme Court is expected to rule on the newspaper’s motion next June—focusing attention once again on a controversial issue.

CHRIS WOOD