Libel and the newspaper

ANNE STEACY June 6 1988

Libel and the newspaper

ANNE STEACY June 6 1988

Libel and the newspaper


It was a trying day for The Ottawa Citizen.

Scotia Supreme Court Judge Peter Richard announced in Halifax that he had dismissed a constitutional challenge that the Citizen had levelled against that province’s libel laws. The challenge was included in the paper’s statement of defence for a pending libel suit that was filed by former federal Conservative defence minister Robert Coates. And on the same day, in Ottawa, former Liberal Indian affairs and northern development minister John Munro told a news conference that he was launching a libel suit against the Citizen. Munro charged that a front-page article in the paper three days earlier had “untruthfully defamed” him. But Citizen spokesmen said that the newspaper stands by its story on Munro. And they added that the paper will appeal the Nova Scotia

ruling on the Coates case.


Murdoch Davis, Citizen assistant managing editor: “We feel that the issues are important enough that it should be pursued at higher levels.”

The Citizen’s attempts to strike down Nova Scotia’s defamation laws— on the grounds that they violate provisions of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms—drew widespread support from Canadian journalists. One was Patrick O’Callaghan, chairman of the national wire service, The Canadian Press, and publisher of The Calgary Herald. Calling Richard’s decision “grossly unfair,” O’Callaghan said, “The newspaper being sued has to prove every minute detail of the case, even the nuances, while the complainant doesn’t have to prove anything.”

Indeed, on March 7, Citizen lawyer Gordon Henderson advanced similar arguments before Richard. According to Henderson, Nova Scotia’s 28-yearold Defamation Act is unconstitutional because it contradicts a presumption of innocence that is fundamental to Canada’s justice system. It does so, he said, by placing a reverse onus on the press to prove that it is not culpable. He charged that the 1960 act has a “chilling” influence on journalists and that it is an outdated attempt to prevent criticism of authority. In his 34page ruling Judge Richard acknowledged that the provincial legislation is

Still, concluded the judge in rejecting the Citizen’s case, “The defamation laws, I suggest, evolved as the citizen’s defence against the awesome power of the printed word.”

“imperfect and in some aspects convoluted.”

In Munro’s scathing attack on the Citizen, he accused the paper of “viciously” and “irresponsibly” abusing its responsibilities. It did so, he said, by publishing excerpts from affidavits dealing with the allocation of federal funds during Munro’s 1984 federal party leadership bid. The affidavits suggested a connection between federal grants to Indians and native support of Munro’s 1984 party leadership

campaign. Said Munro: “To destroy someone by an ill-conceived, noninvestigative story of this type is a disgrace.” According to his lawyer, Toronto-based Julian Porter, the issue of whether there was misdirection of federal money is irrelevant. Declared Porter: “The sting of the libel is that he engineered it and misused his position.” The drawn-out progress toward a libel trial, which still does not have a court date, began when the Citizen published a story on Feb. 12,1985. It reported that one year earlier Coates had made a late-night visit to the Cabaret Tiffany, a strip club in Lahr, West Germany. Coates resigned three hours after the story appeared. And two months after leaving the cabinet Coates announced that he was suing the paper for defamation of character. For his part, Hen-

public officials who sue

derson contended that

papers should be required—as they are in the United States—to prove that the offending statements are false and malicious and that they have caused actual damage to the complainant.

Many journalists—including Geoffrey Stevens, managing editor of the Toronto Globe and Mail—say they hope that the Citizen’s appeal will prompt the Supreme Court of Canada to examine

closely —and perhaps change—the country’s libel laws. At the highercourt level, said Stevens, “we would have a decision with some real meaning.” Meanwhile, the reputations of two former cabinet ministers hang in the balanceawaiting court tests of the responsibilities of the press.