Blog by John Miller

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The public interest

Fourteen years ago, I stood up to Canada's top editors and media lawyers and single-handedly saved the newspaper industry's Statement of Principles.

What's ironic about that is today those same editors and lawyers are rejoicing that the Supreme Court of Canada has reformed the country's libel laws and given them an added defence -- of "responsible communication on matters of public interest." To take advantage of it, they will have to demonstrate to a court that they followed journalism's highest principles.

Thanks to me, they still exist.

That wasn't their argument in 1995. Then, led by lawyers for Southam, Thomson and the Toronto Sun, the Canadian Daily Newspaper Association was about to abolish journalism's equivalent of the Hippocratic Oath, on grounds that it might be used in court someday to make those newspapers look bad. In other words, if you write down the principles you use to gather the news, someone might make you live up to them. That sort of risk scared the hell out of the lawyers.

I was the lone member of the CDNA's editorial committee to vote against the move. The statement, drawn up in 1977 by two great editors of the Toronto Star, Martin Goodman and Borden Spears, set out standards of accuracy and independence that would help the press achieve its most noble purpose, that of "fidelity to the public good." Perhaps it needed updating but it didn't deserve to be abolished, especially behind closed doors.

So I went public. My op-ed article exposing the move was published by four newspapers, and the public reaction forced the CDNA (now the Canadian Newspaper Association) to reconsider. A committee of editors was struck to update and strengthen the statement, and I was grudingly invited to join it. But retribution was quick. The rebuffed media lawyers asked that I be disciplined or fired, and eventually I was. Luckily, the Statement of Principles that I helped redraft lives on, and guides the industry to this day.

Yesterday, when the Supreme Court decided 9-0 to tilt the balance more in favour of the media in libel actions, it said the Charter of Rights guarantee of free expression requires greater legal protection for writers, broadcasters and bloggers who can show they diligently tried to verify the truth, even when they get some facts wrong.

It's a welcome move, and one that brings Canada more into line with legal practice in Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and South Africa. "Freewheeling debate on matters of public interest is to be encouraged and must not be thwarted by 'overly solicitous regard for personal reputation'," wrote Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin.

One of the most interesting reactions was by Richard Dearden, lawyer for the Ottawa Citizen, who said the ruling is a "huge victory" for the press. He also said he thought it will have the effect of increasing journalists' standards of practice because "you have to be responsible."

I think he's right. Under the list of "relevant factors" that the Supreme Court cited and that the media will have to be measured by in future libel actions, journalists will have to make more concerted efforts to get the other side of the story, they will have to be more careful about describing the credibility of sources, or using anonymous sources, and editors may have to use more discretion about rushing into print with a 'scoop.'

But that's what good journalism should be about in this day and age. The CNA should follow the lead of the Canadian Association of Journalists and amplify and make more detailed its standards of practice.

And no, I don't expect an apology from the Canadian newspaper industry. Fourteen years ago, I felt I was just doing my job.

Journalists need to remember it's the public's interest, not their own.