A recent excerpt from a 275-year-old News Letter, from the 1739 editions that we are serialising daily (see opposite page), gave an early glimpse of the balance between press freedom and libel constraints.
The article was a letter from an owner of chickens, who had in an earlier edition of the News Letter implied that opposing owners had cheated against him in a cock fight (a fight between chickens, as was popular in that era).
They had countered that he was guilty of bad practice. In his letter, the owner furiously denied that charge, and said that he had been libelled.
Looked at almost 300 years later, it is a fascinating exchange in what was then a time of rapid growth in publishing and emerging libel law principles.
The paper was trying to publish all sides to the story, albeit with gaps of days or weeks between each entry (due to the slow spread of information by letter and horseback).
This is, overwhelmingly, what newspapers have done for centuries: tried hard to tell the stories of what is happening in the world as accurately as they can. There have always been errors, mostly due to time and space factors.
There has always been a need for balance between the essential right of freedom of expression and the need for accuracy, as well as the right to defend one’s reputation.
In recent years, the balance in the UK has strayed too far from free speech. As the cardiologist Dr Wilmshurst’s experience shows (see page 11), even scientists have felt intimidated.
Once powerful newspapers are now less so in an age in which younger people are reluctant to pay for news.
The libel law reforms adopted in England and Wales rebalance defamation more fairly between those two key rights —the right to free expression and the right to defend your reputation.
Libel claimants have to show they have suffered serious harm. Similar defamation reform is now needed in Northern Ireland.