In Edward Seaga v Leslie Harper  UKPC 9, Mr Seaga appealed to the Privy Council against the decision of the Court of Appeal of Jamaica upholding a decision to deny him the defence of qualified privilege in a case of slander brought by Mr Harper.
Mr Seaga had made statements, which were held to be defamatory against Mr Harper, in a public meeting and in the presence of the media. Mr Seaga was denied the defence of qualified privilege of the type particularly laid down by the House of Lords in Reynolds v Times Newspapers Ltd (2001) 2 AC 127 HL as the Court of Appeal in Jamaica held that the principles apply only to publications by the media and not to statements made by an individual. In addition, there was no evidence that he had taken care to check the truth of the statements. Mr Seaga argued that the case was not to be decided on the basis of Reynolds principles, but under the rules of traditional qualified privilege.
The Privy Council disagreed with the Court of Appeal of Jamaica in holding that the principles laid down by Lord Nicholls in the Reynolds applied only to media reports. It was held that, if the conditions of “responsible journalism” as laid down by Lord Nicholls in Reynolds are met, any statement in the public interest, made by anyone, in any medium, would be covered by qualified privilege, even if defamatory.
Mr Seaga’s argument, that the Reynolds principle did not apply to his statements which, therefore, would be protected under traditional rules of qualified privilege was dismissed by the Privy Council. It was held that there was a “liberalising intention” in Reynolds that widened the ambit of qualified privilege to include communications to the public in general that would have been allowed under the traditional rules. Moreover, the quality of information conveyed in the statement was not such that Mr Seaga was required to report it to the public. It therefore lacked the traditional qualified privilege element of interest and duty. The Reynolds principles require, inter alia, that to claim the defence of qualified privilege, while making defamatory statements, it is necessary that the information on which the statement is made is a matter of public interest, that care has to be taken to verify the information, there must be an urgency to it and it can not be subject to any investigation. It was held that Mr Seaga’s statements in this case failed to meet these conditions as the information was nothing more than rumour and it was not based on verifiable sources. Mr Seaga himself had no first hand knowledge of the information and had not taken care to verify it. In addition, there was no urgency to publish it as a matter of public interest.
The case is noteworthy as it has extended the protection of qualified privilege to everyone making statements in the public interest, in any medium. It thereby extends the freedom of expression principle to individuals outside the media. It has also reinforced the principles laid down in Reynolds for the defence of qualified privilege in the public interest, particularly the requirement of diligence in checking the reliability of information before disseminating it.