Wall St Journal's online libel win brings 'much-needed clarity'
Clare Dyer, legal correspondent
Friday February 4, 2005
Judges at the appeal court in London yesterday threw out a libel action against the Wall Street Journal's online publication because only five people in England had read the allegedly defamatory item.
In a ground-breaking judgment, the court, headed by Lord Phillips, master of the rolls, ruled that internet publishers could not be sued in the English courts unless there has been a "substantial" publication in England.
Their ruling leaves Yousef Jameel, the wealthy Saudi Arabian who tried to sue the Wall Street Journal's publisher - United States-based Dow Jones - in London, facing a bill of £150,000 for the online publication's costs.
The judgment dispels fears that internet publishers could be open to expensive lawsuits in foreign courts after a ruling in 2002 by Australia's highest court.
The court held that a Melbourne mining magnate, Joseph Gutnick, could sue Dow Jones in Australia over an article in the online version of its Barron's magazine which had only nine Australian hits.
Lord Phillips, sitting with Lords Justices Sedley and Jonathan Parker, said: "It would be an abuse of process to continue to commit the resources of the English court, including substantial judge and possibly jury time, to an action where so little is now seen to be at stake."
Mr Jameel claimed that an article on the journal's website in March 2003 alleged that he was an early funder of Osama bin Laden before al-Qaida's leader started targeting Americans. The article contained a hyperlink to a document which he said referred to him.
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However, the journal could show that only five people in England had clicked on the hyperlink, including Mr Jameel's solicitor and two of Mr Jameel's business associ ates. The article was removed from the website in July 2003.
Lord Phillips said the damage to Mr Jameel's reputation had been "minimal".
No jury could be directed to award other than "very modest damages" after what would inevitably be a lengthy and expensive trial.
"The cost of the exercise will have been out of all proportion to what has been achieved," said the judge.
"The game will not merely have been not worth the candle, it will not have been worth the wick."
Mark Stephens, a solicitor acting for Dow Jones, said: "This is a significant decision for internet publishers. It starts to inject into the world of online publications some much needed clarity."
Libel action lost because only five people read story
Thursday February 3, 2005
A high court judge today overturned a libel ruling against a newspaper's online operations because technical investigations had shown that only five people in the UK had read the story in question.
The ruling in favour of the Wall Street Journal's American publisher, Dow Jones, has been hailed as a "major development in English law".
Dow Jones' successful appeal related to an original judgment in favour of Saudi businessman Yousef Jameel, who had sued for libel over a story on the Wall Street Journal Online website that falsely linked him to funding al-Qaida.
The high court today accepted Dow Jones' argument that the case was a waste of the court's time because it transpired that only five people had read the article. This is because, unlike printed newspapers, online newspapers can tell how many times any given story has been opened by a remote user.
The proceedings related to a story headlined "War on Terror. List of Early al Qaeda donors points to Saudi elite, charities", which included an interactive link to the so-called list of donors, which included Mr Jameel's name.
Lord Phillips said today there must be a substantial number of hits on a website to merit court action, otherwise proceedings amounted to an abuse of process.
Mr Jameel's lawyers said he began legal proceeding in the belief that the website had between 5,000-6,000 subscribers in the UK, according to Dow Jones' marketing information. It was not until later that it emerged that only five people had looked at the story.
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The Wall Street Journal's lawyer, Mark Stephens, said the ruling has introduced a new substantiality test because it contrasted with a previous ruling in Australia that awarded damages against an online publication even though only nine people had read the article.
The ruling in 2002, brought by mining magnate Joe Gutnick against Barron's magazine (also owned by Dow Jones), was considered significant because it meant an individual could sue in Australia for an article uploaded anywhere in the world.
Lord Phillips said if there was a risk that the defamatory statements might be published on a wider scale then there might be grounds for Mr Jameel to pursue proceeding to get an injunction. But he didn't believe there was a risk in this case.
The ruling may also curtail so-called libel tourism, with foreigners suing in the UK to take advantage of Britain's favourable libel laws, Mr Stephens said.
Lord Phillips asked Mr Jameel's lawyer, James Price QC, why he had sued in the UK and not in the US, where the story was published.
Mr Price confirmed it was because "we obviously face a somewhat tougher legal regime in the US" and because his client was better known in the UK.
Lord Phillips said had Mr Jameel known the story had no significant publication in the UK, he should have sued in the US or elsewhere where more people had read it.
He also "stayed" the case, which means it will never be resurrected and awarded Dow Jones £100,000 in costs.
Andrew Stephenson, Mr Jameel's lawyer, said his client would be reviewing whether to sue Dow Jones in any other country.
The ruling was the second of two appeals today concerning the Jameel family. The Wall Street Journal Europe lost the first appeal against Yousef's brother, Mohammed Jameel.
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