Leading Article: Who should judge the journalists?

Share
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

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (B2B) - Romford - £40,000 + car

£35000 - £40000 per annum + car and benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager...

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000 ...

Ashdown Group: Data Scientist - London - £50,000 + bonus

£35000 - £50000 per annum + generous bonus: Ashdown Group: Business Analytics ...

Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Development) - Kingston

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Dev...

Day In a Page

Read Next
File: David Cameron offers a toast during a State Dinner in his honour March 14, 2012  

Vote Tory and you’re voting for the rich to get richer and the poor to get poorer

Mark Steel
 

If I were Prime Minister: I'd end the war on drugs

Patrick Hennessey
General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

Typefaces still matter in the digital age

A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

Ronald McDonald the muse

A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
13 best picnic blankets

13 best picnic blankets

Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

Juventus vs Real Madrid

Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected