Nowy Czas is a newspaper that serves the Polish community of London. It is edited by Grzegorz and Teresa Malkiewicz.
Back in 2015 they published an article about a businessman. They discussed his historic business dealings and bankruptcy, and expressed concern at his involvement with two charitable organisations: The POSK cultural centre in Hammersmith, and the Kolbe House Care home in Ealing.
The gentleman in question sued the newspaper for libel, and the case was heard in 2017. Nowy Czas successfully defended the article, using the defences of ‘substantial truth’ (Defamation Act 2013, section 2) and ‘public interest’ (section 4).
Unfortunately, that did not put the case to bed. The claimant appealed, asserting that as a litigant-in-person, the judge had not given him a fair trial. The appeal courts agreed. Last year, the UK Supreme Court ordered that there should be a retrial.
Greg and Teresa now have to go through the ordeal of another trial, only this time, all their funds have been exhausted! In February, Private Eye compared the case to Dickens’ Bleak House [PDF]. In a darkly ironic twist, they face having to defend their journalism as litigants-in-person, which was the exactly cause of the problems in the original trial.
The defences in defamation are layered and complex. If Greg and Teresa have to fight a complex libel case in their second language, it is highly unlikely that they will be able to properly defend their journalism.
This is of particular concern to me because, of course, I was part of the Libel Reform Campaign team that secured the Act back in 2013. I wrote the briefings, and made the phone calls to MPs and Members of the House of Lords, urging them to back a simplified public interest defence. I was actually sitting in the room (well, Grand Committee Chamber) when parliament agreed to amend the ‘public interest’ clause in the Bill. And I was, shall we say, rather vexed by the Court of Appeal’s interpretion of section 4 in their 2019 judgment in this case. When the case went to the Supreme Court last year, I volunteered to help the lawyers fight for a better interpretation of the provisions. I was delighted that our highest court agreed that the defence was materially different — and potentially wider — than the common law Reynolds defence that had gone before.
So there is a lot at stake in the Serafin v Malkiewicz retrial, which will be heard at the end of June. If Greg and Teresa have legal representation (and they have a leading barrister lined up) then there is a very good chance that they will prevail again. The Courts will confirm that the public interest defence is flexible enough to be of use to small community publications who want to defend their journalism.
If Greg and Teresa do not get the representation they deserve, then there is a very good chance that they will lose the case, and therefore their house and their livelihood. The rest of us, meanwhile, will lose the benefit of a legal precedent that protects small newspapers and campaign groups when they write on matters that concern us all.
You and I might never have to avail ourselves of the public interest defence in a libel case… but if the chill on free speech is lessened, then that will encourage investigative journalism and encourage discussion on matters that affect our community.
This, I submit, is a good reason to support Greg and Teresa’s case. If you can spare a few pounds then please contribute to the Crowdfunder. And if you’re on social media, then please share the link to let more people know about the appeal.