BBC faces justification nighmare

The BBC faces the toughest of all libel challenges: the justification defence.

An IVF doctor is suing over a Panorama programme which claimed he was pressurising patients into paying for unnecessary treatment.

The BBC was going for both a Reynolds and a justification defence. But after months of legal work it has dropped Reynolds, the “responsible journalism” defence under qualified privilege.

One of the medical experts it quoted turned out to be an administrative assistant. That breaches one of the Nichols tests for Reynolds of having reliable sources who would really know.

Even before coming to court it is having to pay the other side’s costs in preparing for the Reynolds defence. The Times says £500,000 so far.

And it faces the daunting prospect of the justification defence. It will have to prove the allegations.

Justification is dangerous for three reasons:

• If the BBC losees the damages will be increased because it persisted with an untrue statement after it was told it is untrue;

• Judges can cut into witness lists to speed up the legal process; and

• When it comes to a journalist’s word and that of almost anybody else, juries tend to believe the claimant.

So, the BBC’s reputation is again on the line. I hope it does not get the type of mauling which Hutton gave it. Over to Mr Justice Eady again.

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