May 2019
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Brims v Reid & Sons; 1885

References: (1885) 12 R 1016
Coram: Lord President Inglis, Lord Shand
A newspaper had published an anonymous letter concerning the fitness for office of the pursuer who was seeking re-election as a member of a town council and to the public office of Dean of Guild. The publisher refused to disclose the name of the writer of the letter which he had published in his newspaper. It was held that he could not plead privilege in action to the pursuer’s action of damages. ‘It appears to me that, whatever might be the case if these statements had been made in an editorial article, about which I give no opinion, the fact that they were made in an anonymous letter is quite sufficient for the decision of this case. It is difficult to define the exact extent of the privilege of comment which the editor of a newspaper undoubtedly has to some extent upon the doings of public men; it is difficult to define what the class of public men is with reference to whose doings he enjoys that privilege, or what the kind of accusations that may be brought against the conduct of public men is; and yet again it is difficult to distinguish between the doings of a public man, as a public man, and as a private individual.’ and ‘But we are relieved of all these difficulties in the present case by the fact that the statements complained of are contained in an anonymous letter to the editor. The editor has declined to disclose the author. The effect of this in point of law is not to entitle this letter to be dealt with as if it had appeared in a leading article or in some part of the paper in which the editor speaks for himself. The law is that the editor accepts the position of the anonymous writer with every liability which could have been laid upon that writer if he had been disclosed. The question, then, is whether malice would require to be put in issue against the writer if he had been disclosed. ‘ and ‘Now, the answer to that question will depend upon who the writer was, and what his connection was with the matters on which he writes. But in the present case we cannot ascertain who the writer was, whether he was a ratepayer in Wick, whether he ever was in Wick in his life, or whether he is even a subject of Her Majesty. In short, we know nothing about him; he is a mere umbra. He is somebody who has libelled the pursuer, and is not in a position to justify that libel by proving its truth, or to justify it by saying that he has a privilege.’ and ‘The newspaper editor can be in no better position then than the anonymous writer himself. Now, if the letter was written with malice, it is conceded that the pursuer is entitled to damages. But how can anyone prove malice on the part of a person of whom he knows nothing at all? What can he tell of his state of mind, or his relation to the matter on which he comments? Or how, on the other hand, can malice in such a case be disproved?’
This case is cited by:

  • Followed – McKerchar v Cameron ((1892) 19 R 383)
    A newspaper published an anonymous letter containing statements that the pursuer, a salaried official, was unfit for his post as a teacher in a public school. It was argued that the ratepayers and inhabitants of the neighbourhood had an interest and . .
  • Cited – Reynolds v Times Newspapers Ltd and others HL (Times 29-Oct-99, Gazette 25-Nov-99, Gazette 17-Nov-99, House of Lords, Bailii, [2001] 2 AC 127, [1999] UKHL 45, [1999] 4 All ER 609, [1999] 3 WLR 1010, [2000] EMLR 1, [2000] HRLR 134, 7 BHRC 289)
    The defendant newspaper had published articles wrongly accusing the claimant, the former Prime Minister of Ireland of duplicity. The paper now appealed, saying that it should have had available to it a defence of qualified privilege because of the . .

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