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comment must be "honest" – it doesn't have to be "fair"

2 December 2010

In a significant development to defamation law, the Supreme Court in Spiller v Joseph has clarified the defence of fair comment (also renaming it “honest comment”).

It is not necessary for a publisher to have identified the matters on which comment is based in sufficient detail to enable a reader to judge for themselves whether the comment is well founded. Instead, an honest comment  “must explicitly or implicitly indicate, at least in general terms, the facts on which it is based” so that “the reader can understand what the comment is about and the commentator can, if challenged, explain…”. However, a defendant is not permitted to get support from facts that were not referred to by the comment, or facts that the defendant did not know when he made his comment.

This clarification allies the defence more closely with the realities of publication on the internet, in editorials and in blogs, and makes a little progress towards the more robust reform position currently proposed in the Defamation Bill. The ruling will please publishers and proponents of free speech – but on the other hand, it might make the judicial process for persons defamed in unbalanced attacks more difficult.

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