Law Commission won't rush into Internet legislation

The Law Commission has no short-term plans to look into the question of defamation via the Internet, in spite of a closing paragraph referring to the medium in a recent report "Defaming Politicians".

The Law Commission has no short-term plans to look into the question of defamation via the Internet, in spite of a closing paragraph referring to the medium in a recent report “Defaming Politicians”.

Possible legal difficulties connected with the Internet were “simply something that struck us as we were preparing the report,” says commissioner Donald Dugdale. “It was just a bit of crystal-ball gazing and there is [no investigation of the matter] in train.”

The bulk of the report deals with defamation in print and on radio and television. Subtitled “a Response to Lange v Atkinson", it centres on a case in which former prime minister David Lange accused a New Zealand magazine of defaming him. The magazine's defence was one of “qualified privilege”. This describes a situation where “one may have a duty to tell the truth as one sees it, without being liable to a damages claim if one is mistaken”.

The report suggests amendments to this clause.

However, in an afterword, the commission points out that the law of qualified privilege is based on an assumption of “an organisational structure, traditionally presided over by an editor”, who ultimately controls the content.

The Internet, however, “means that now any person … can … engage in general publication of whatever suits him or her without the intervention of a news medium and without any concern for the ethical inhibitions said to govern journalists and editors.”

This factor may give rise to a need for “fundamental reshaping” of the qualified privilege defence “and perhaps the law of defamation generally ... but that is for another day.”

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