Leading Article: Who should judge the journalists?

Related Topics
Few weep when newspapers have to pay huge libel damages. The general public pictures a rich proprietor with deep pockets abusing an underdog. Juries relish the chance to exact an expensive revenge: it is fortunate for some reporters that hanging is not an option.

In this atmosphere of common contempt, libel awards - the only civil damages controlled by juries - have come to bear little or no relation to the much smaller sums usually won by victims of other wrongs.

The family of 12-year-old Tim Parry, killed in 1993 by an IRA bomb in Warrington, was awarded just pounds 7,500 for his loss by the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board. This compared with pounds 350,000 damages awarded to Elton John for an article in the Sunday Mirror which falsely claimed that he suffered from the eating disorder bulimia nervosa.

The inflated level of damages also acts as a muzzle on the press. Small publications face the danger of going out of business on the basis of a single lost court case. The New Statesman and Private Eye both narrowly escaped closure after such cases.

At last, this week, the courts stepped in to bring some sanity and rationality into the system of civil damages. On Tuesday, Sir Thomas Bingham, Master of the Rolls, drastically reduced Elton John's award to pounds 75,000. More significantly, he ruled that juries should be informed of typical awards for accident victims, so that the size of libel damages can be kept in proportion. In future, a judge may, for example, point out that a paraplegic gets a maximum of pounds 125,000 for the injury.

This move is a welcome step towards making juries more realistic in the sums they extract from guilty media. But it may not work. Judges have tried in the past to reduce jury generosity to plaintiffs. Reforms have entitled Appeal Court judges to cut awards. It is already routine for trial judges to offer vague guidance on what a jury might consider appropriate compensation for an offence. None of these measures has had any perceivable effect on libel juries, which have continued to disperse cash in telephone number amounts.

So what happens if Sir Thomas Bingham's initiative cuts no ice with juries and they continue to award millions? Some might then call for the complete abolition of jury awards, suggesting that, while the jury should adjudicate on matters of guilt, punishment ought to be left to the judiciary. This change would, no doubt, lead to a drastic cut in libel damages.

But it would be a mistake. Ordinary people should have a say on how to compensate those wounded by words. It is a right that may need some circumscribing: if juries continue to make excessive awards, a cap might have to be set on what they can give away. But assessing a reputation - and the damage done to it by defamation - is best done by a person's peers. It would be a bad day for British justice if readers, listeners and viewers no longer sat in judgment on and set the punishments for errant journalists.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Junior Web Designer - Client Liaison

£6 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a gro...

Recruitment Genius: Service Delivery Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Service Delivery Manager is required to join...

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Riyadh is setting itself up as region’s policeman

Lina Khatib
Ed Miliband and David Cameron  

Cameron and Miliband should have faith in their bolder policies

Ian Birrell
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor