Defamation / Reputation
Johnson v. Steele
Closed Expands Expression
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On Jamaica’s Nationwide News Network (NNN), Cliff Hughes, the network’s managing director, broadcasted a unconfirmed and untrue news stories about Jamaica’s former Prime Minster, P.J. Patterson. After NNN did not meet Patterson’s demands for an apology and for damages, Patterson brought suit against NNN, Hughes, and others for libel. The court awarded Patterson JMD $12 million.
In 2009, Nationwide News Network (NNN), a defendant, broadcasted “Breaking News,” which was available internationally via the business’ website. Cliff Hughes, another defendant and NNN’s managing director, delivered this news along with other NNN employees.
According to the newscast, a diplomatic pouch containing approximately US $500,000 was found on a private jet at a local airport. In a later broadcast, it was alleged that former Jamaican Prime Minister P.J. Patterson, the plaintiff, was on the plane. Patterson, who was on a private jet that day and retired from public office in 2006, wrote a statement claiming that the newscast offended him and that these allegations against him were baseless.
The current Prime Minister, Bruce Golding, issued a statement less than a week after claiming that the information in NNN’s report has been confirmed by a police investigation but the source of the information could not be determined.
Patterson refutes many of the claims made in the broadcast, and he claims there were no incident, no money, and no diplomatic pouch. Later that month, attorneys for the plaintiff wrote to NNN claiming that NNN defamed their client. The attorneys also requested that an apology be published both on NNN and in two of the country’s leading newspapers. Finally, the letter requested that NNN pay damages to the plaintiff, as well as his legal costs. NNN did not meet these demands, and Patterson filed this suit.
Patterson filed a claimed against NNN for libel, seeking both aggravated and exemplary damages as a result of NNN’s broadcast. Patterson requested damages, jointly and/or severally against the defendants, for libel and for interest. In his claim, Patterson also outlined the alleged defamatory words used by NNN that were broadcasted throughout Jamaica and to an unquantifiable amount of Internet users around the world.
The defendants maintain that their reporting related to this case was fair and accurate, even though the plaintiff refutes many of the assertions made by NNN in its broadcast. The defendants acknowledge that they published the language in question, but they refute that the words in questions are defamatory, assuming the words are given their ordinary and natural meaning. The defendants also deny that they acted with malice and argue that they acted responsibly when publishing these words.
Furthermore, the defendants argue that their wording should be taken as a whole, rather than considered in whole. The claimants also deny that their words seriously damaged Patterson’s reputation, either internationally or regionally. As a defense, the defendants claim, “it is their professional, moral and social duty to report and impart its reasoned knowledge of information received.” Accordingly, the defendants deny that Patterson is entitled to any damages.
In the reply to the defense, the claimant argues that defendant published these words maliciously. Specifically, the plaintiff claims that the defendants did not contact the plaintiff before publishing its story, despite having access to the plaintiff’s phone numbers. The plaintiff’s spokesman, Delano Franklyn, contacted one of the defendants to let him know that story was false, and the defendants continued to report the story. Therefore, the plaintiff claims “the broadcast was published maliciously with the absence of honest belief.” The plaintiff also included in its submission the elements of defamation. Namely, there must be publication of the statement, which must refer to the plaintiff and also be defamatory.
The defendant stressed that an important issued necessary to the decision of the court is “whether the defendant’s coverage of the breaking news story taken as a whole was capable of leading an ordinary listener to a defamatory imputation/inference adverse to the claimant?” The court identified the threshold issue to be whether the published words were defamatory. The court looked to both statute and case law when considering the meaning of the words and the perspective that the court should take. The court then applied the standard for “ordinary meaning” to the words of the broadcast to ascertain what the public at large would have surmised from the broadcast. The court found that the published story implied that Patterson’s behavior was criminal, though the defense disagreed that words in the broadcast did not mean that Patterson was involved in or suspected of crimes.
The court also considered the words as whole, i.e., in the broadcast’s context, and the words’ meaning at the time they were published. The court noted that for defamation the publisher’s intent is irrelevant. After reviewing the broadcast’s words from the perspective of the audience, the court found that indeed some of the plaintiff’s asserted meanings were plausible and also defamatory.
The court then considered the applicability of the Reynolds privilege, which is a qualified privilege that sometimes attaches to media’s publications. In determining if the media outlet utilized professional care and skill, and thus is entitled to the benefits of the Reynolds privilege, the court must consider various factors. The factors include the subject matter of the publication, the information’s nature and seriousness, the matter’s urgency, and the process used to verify information. Here, the court found that the topic’s seriousness required that the defendants act carefully to avoid the dissemination of misinformation to the public. Though the court concedes that the information, if true, would have been a matter of pubic concern, however, the court held that the information was false in this case.
In scrutinizing the defendants’ sources for the determination of Reynolds privilege’s applicability, the court noted that a source’s reliability depends on more than the source’s status or integrity. A source that lacks direct knowledge of the relevant events is unreliable, as was the case here. The court also found that “[t]he steps taken to verify the information could be viewed as falling far short of those expected from persons engaged in investigative journalism” and the information was not “properly investigated to warrant being broadcast in the manner it was.”  After taking this issue and other factors into consideration, the court found that the defense failed to meet any of the factors required for Reynolds, which also showed a lack of responsible journalism.
In making its determination of damages, the court considered the broadcast’s impact on the plaintiff and his reputation, the restoration of his reputation, including witness statements about the plaintiff’s reputation, the plaintiff’s persona, and the defendants’ reactions and apologies. The court award the plaintiff JMD $12 million in damages.
 Paragraph 93 of the decision, http://supremecourt.gov.jm/sites/default/files/judgments/Patterson-James%20Percival%20v%20Cliff%20Hughes%20and%20Nationwide%20News%20Network%20Limited.pdf.
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