‘The press discharges vital functions as a blood hound as well as a watchdog’ – Lord Nicholls in Reynolds
By Prior Beharry
FORMER police commissioner Gary Griffith loses a case he filed against the Trinidad Express Newspaper for three articles it published in October 2020 relating to the granting of firearm uses’ licences by him when he was top cop.
Justice Jacqueline Wilson in a 32-page ruling on Tuesday upheld the defence of Reynolds privilege argued by attorneys for the Express.
The judgement stated that the articles published on October 25 and 26, 2020 claimed that Griffith:
(i) knowingly issued licences to persons against whom criminal charges were pending;
(ii) granted licences to businessmen whose spouses had made reports of domestic abuse; and
(iii) expedited the grant of licences to donors of the I Support Our Service Fund, an initiative launched by the claimant and his wife.
The defamation claim was filed by Griffith against reporters Denyse Renne, Rickie Ramdass and the Express.
Justice Wilson said that Griffith contended that the articles made serious allegations of professional impropriety against him with no evidence to support them and that the defendants intentionally or recklessly brought his good name and performance as commissioner of police into disrepute.
She said the defendants invoked the defence of Reynolds privilege with respect to the three articles and the defence of reportage in relation to the third.
The first article published on October 25, 2020, was a front-page headline that read: GUN SCANDAL. People on illegal firearm charges granted user’s licences.
The second article was also written by Renne and published on October 26, 2020. It was titled: HERE’S THE PROOF. Express responds to Griffith’s denial that no accused granted legal 12 firearms.
This followed a media release the day before by the Corporate Communications Unit of the Trinidad and Tobago
Police Service (TTPS) in response to the first article.
The third article was written by Ramdass also on October 26, 2020. It was headlined: CoP denies gun scandal. It quoted extensively from the TTPS media release and Griffith’s denial of the Express’ allegations.
Quoting the 2002 case of Reynolds vs Times Newspapers Ltd, Justice Wilson said, “It is built on the traditional foundation of qualified privilege which requires a mutual duty and interest between the publisher and recipient of the information. It is accepted that in a modern democracy the journalist has a professional duty to impart information on matters of public interest and the public has an interest to receive such information. The defence therefore applies in the case of a publication by the press, which is the case here, but it can also apply to other publications.
“The defence of Reynolds privilege is a complete defence and if established denies any remedy to the claimant. It only arises as a live issue where the statement in question is defamatory and untrue. Reynolds privilege therefore protects the publication of untrue and defamatory matter.
“It does so for two reasons that impact on freedom of expression and freedom of the press; first so as not to deter the publication in question, which might have been true and secondly, so as not to deter future publication of truthful information.”
She added, “It protects such matters where the publication is to the public at large or a section of it and where (1) it was in the public interest that the information should be published and (2) where the publisher has acted responsibly – a test usually referred to as ‘responsible journalism.’
“There are therefore two key questions which must both be answered in the affirmative before a court can hold that a publication is protected by the defence of Reynolds privilege.
“The first is whether the subject matter of the publication was a matter of public interest.”
Justice Wilson said a journalist was entitled to rely on an anonymous source and need not produce primary evidence of the information given by his sources.
And the judge noted the caution of Lord Nicholls in Reynolds: “Above all, the court should have particular regard to the importance of freedom of expression. The press discharges vital functions as a blood hound as well as a watchdog. The court should be slow to conclude that the publication was not in the public interest and therefore the public have no right to know, especially where the information is in the field of political discussion. Any lingering doubts should be resolved in favour of publication.”
Justice Wilson said that the attorneys for the Express submitted that the deficiencies of the firearm licensing regime and the measures taken by the claimant to address them, including the alleged non-compliance with the Firearms Act, are matters of public interest and concern.”
She said, “There can be no dispute that the lawful application of the requirements of the Firearms Act by the Commissioner is a matter of serious public interest. As is the case with all licensing regimes, the objective is to ensure that licences are granted to persons who are assessed as fit and proper to hold them and who meet the legal requirements.”
Justice Wilson said the articles raised concern that, in granting licences to persons who did not meet the requirements, Griffith abused the power conferred on him by the Firearms Act.
She said, “The concerns were raised after a course of investigation in which the first defendant (Renne) received information from a confidential source in the Police Service. She sought to verify the information by putting questions to the claimant on her material findings and conducted an independent review of police records and court documents.
“The questions that were put to the claimant and his response to them were published in full in the articles together with a TTPS press release denying the allegations.”
Justice Wilson said the defence of Reynolds privilege argued by the Express attorneys therefore succeeds.
She said, “The claimant’s case therefore fails and is hereby dismissed. The claimant shall pay the defendants’ prescribed costs of the claim.
“Having heard the parties on costs, I accept their submission that the value of the claim is in the sum of $600,000 and that the defendants’ prescribed costs are to be calculated on this amount.”
Prescribed costs are based on a scale of fees relevant to the quantum of the claim as set out in the Civil Proceedings Rules which governs civil litigation in this country.
An attorney with knowledge of civil cases said the prescribed costs that Griffith had to pay would amount to $79,000.
The Express, Renne and Ramdass were represented by Farees Hosein instructed by G Sampson while Larry Lalla instructed by Vashist Seepersad appeared for Griffith.