Leading Article: Who should judge the journalists?

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.