Former Newfoundland and Labrador premier Danny Williams is suing the St. John’s Telegram for defamation. On September 19, 2014, the Telegram published “Buying Influence,” an editorial about the $700,000 rental subsidy city councillors gave to the St. John’s IceCaps hockey team, of which Williams is president and CEO.
The editorial states that Williams made small monetary donations to many of the councillors making the decision during their campaigns for office, as well as $2,000 to John Ottenheimer’s PC leadership bid. It then delves into political contribution laws in Canada and outlines past donation issues in the province. Williams has not disputed making these donations, but that they influenced the council’s decision to grant the rental subsidy.
Williams’ statement of claim says the editorial implied he bribed city council, engaged in “influence-peddling” and used his position as retired premier to improperly influence council. He’s particularly concerned about a sentence near the end of the article: “Companies and wealthy individuals should not be allowed to buy political influence with hefty sums of cash or the equivalent in services.”
The Telegram is defending the op-ed, claiming the highlighted sentence above does not and is not capable of referring to Williams. The defence statement also says the editorial was fair comment made in good faith and without malice and asks that Williams’ claims be dismissed.
Historically, the Telegram would be in a tough spot. Since 2000, many major defamation cases against the media have been ruled in the plaintiff’s favour. In 2002, $1.2 million was awarded to Gilles E. Néron Communication and Marketing Inc. in Néron’s lawsuit against CBC and Chambres de notaries du Québec. Two years earlier, York Region engineer Robert Hodgson got $780,000 over a series of articles published in The Globe and Mail. Steve Indig of Sports Law & Strategy Group writes this is because the courts presume a person’s good reputation and give a broad interpretation of what is defamatory.
However, in 2009, Torstar Corporation successfully appealed a decision that would have seen them pay out almost $1.5 million to businessman Peter Grant. Grant filed a lawsuit after the Toronto Star published articles critical of the plan to expand his lakeside golf course and included quotes from residents suspicious that Grant had exercised political influence to get his way.
In the judgment, the Supreme Court of Canada wrote, “Although the right to free expression does not confer a licence to ruin reputation, when proper weight is given to the constitutional value of free expression on matters of public interest, the balance tips in favour of broadening the defences available to those who communicate facts it is in the public’s interest to know.” This shows that as long as journalists do their due diligence to verify their claims, they can use the public interest defence to effectively defend themselves.
This seems to be the case with the Telegram. While Williams says the editorial suggests he bribed city councillors, the article doesn’t state this outright, but lets readers connect the dots how they want. None of the historical facts presented in the article have been proven false and as the defence claim states: “The entire editorial was a comment about an issue of public interest, namely the lack of regulation with respect to contributions to political campaigns.” It looks like the Telegram may have said enough to make its point, while protecting itself through the fair comment and matters of public interest defences.
Note: The second paragraph of this post has been updated for clarity of what Williams disputes.