Campbell v Spottiswoode: 1863

The plaintiff, a dissenting Protestant minister, sought to advance Christianity in China by promoting a newspaper with letters emphasising its importance. The defendant attacked him in a rival newspaper, saying his motive was not to take the gospel to the Chinese but to profit from the newspaper sales. He then alleged that the subscribers listed were fictitious. The defendant was clear that this was only an inference but one of fact.
Held: It was a defence to defamation, that the words were a comment on a matter of public interest. The court distinguished between attacking the scheme and attacking the character of its proponent.
Crompton J said: ‘it is the right of all the Queen’s subjects to discuss public matters, but no person can have a right on that ground to publish what is defamatory merely because he believes it to be true. If this were so, a public man might have base motives imputed to him without having an opportunity of righting himself’. A bona fide belief that he is publishing what is true would not provide a defendant with an answer to an action for libel, where he has attributed ‘base and sordid motives which are not warranted by the facts’ and ‘Nothing is more important than that fair and full latitude of discussion should be allowed to writers upon any public matter, whether it be the conduct of public men, the proceedings in courts of justice or in Parliament, or the publication of a scheme or of a literary work. But it is always to be left to a jury to say whether the publication has gone beyond the limits of a fair comment on the subject-matter discussed. A writer is not entitled to overstep those limits and impute base and sordid motives which are not warranted by the facts, and I cannot for a moment think that, because he has a bona fide belief that he is publishing what is true, that is any answer to an action for libel. With respect to the publication of the plaintiff’s scheme, the defendant might ridicule it and point out the improbability of its success; but that was all he had a right to do.’
Cockburn CJ said: ‘I think the fair position in which the law may be settled is this: that where the public conduct of a public man is open to animadversion, and the writer who is commenting upon it makes imputations on his motives which arise fairly and legitimately out of his conduct so that a jury shall say that the criticism was not only honest, but also well founded, an action is not maintainable’. But it is not because a public writer fancies that the conduct of a public man is open to the suspicion of dishonesty, he is therefore justified in assailing his character as dishonest.’

Crompton J, Cockburn CJ
(1863) 3 B and S 769, [1863] EngR 405, (1863) 122 ER 288
England and Wales
See AlsoCampbell v Spottiswoode 1863
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Lists of cited by and citing cases may be incomplete.

Defamation, Media

Leading Case

Updated: 01 November 2021; Ref: scu.194503