Even though it's December, the air inside Canada's newsrooms just got a little less chilly.
Yesterday, the Supreme Court of Canada established a new defence to libel claims, one that promises to give the media some breathing room when investigating allegations of wrongdoing or reporting on politics and other important public issues.
And it should reduce the "libel chill" - the fear of facing, and losing, an expensive lawsuit - that has watered down news stories and consigned others to the dumpster.
It's called the defence of responsible communication on matters of public interest, and it can defeat a libel claim even if someone's reputation has been sullied by the reporting of facts or allegations that turn out to be wrong or false. If a news story deals with a matter of public importance, the focus switches to the journalist's conduct in producing the story.
In essence, the law is holding journalists to the standard expected of doctors, lawyers and other professionals. They don't have to be perfect - lawyers don't win every case, not every patient survives surgery. What's important are the journalist's efforts to make the story as accurate and fair as possible.
As Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin noted in one of the landmark rulings, the law should protect reputations but citizens are not entitled "to demand perfection and the inevitable silencing of critical comment that a standard of perfection would impose."
In ordering new trials in libel claims against the Ottawa Citizen and the Toronto Star, the court adopted the defence of responsible journalism, developed in Britain over the past decade, with a new name and made-in-Canada modifications.
Chief Justice McLachlin stressed the importance of the "marketplace of ideas" that for centuries has been seen as essential to democracy. The new defence strikes a balance between the right of individuals to protect their good names and the wider public interest in an open and thorough discussion of the issues of the day. "Productive debate," she wrote, "is dependent on the free flow of information."
But the Charter guarantee of press freedom "does not confer a licence to ruin reputations." The court listed factors to be considered when applying the defence, including whether the news was urgent and of public importance. The reliability of the journalist's sources and efforts made to get the other side of the story also matter, as does whether the defamatory information was essential.
There's more good news in the broad definition of which stories deal with matters of public interest and are protected under the new defence. It includes political controversies, matters that affect the public at large as well as narrower groups, and issues "ranging from science and the arts to the environment, religion and morality."
One of the most significant aspects of the rulings for the media - and for anyone who follows the news - may be the creation of a defence of "reportage" as one of the factors that could support the wider defence of responsible communication.
The court says journalists should be able to report statements and allegations, regardless of whether the comments are true or can be proven, if there is a public interest in having the information disseminated to a wider audience. There are strings attached - sources should be named, contrary views should be reported and it must be clear when facts or allegations have not been verified - but this promises to make it easier to cover the cut-and-thrust of political debate.
The rulings are not just an early Christmas gift for journalists. The court, recognizing that the definition of "journalist" is expanding in our online world, says bloggers and anyone else "publishing material of public interest in any medium" are covered. Established journalistic practices offer a guide to assessing the conduct of "journalists and non-journalists alike," the court says, and standards will evolve "to keep pace with the norms of new communications media."
The defence of responsible communication does not allow journalists, bloggers or anyone else to ruin someone's reputation with impunity. The law demands high standards of conduct and establishing the defence could be costly - just ask the newspapers headed to trial a second time. But these decisions modernize laws that have long put reputations ahead of our need for hard-hitting journalism on important public issues.
Dean Jobb is associate professor of journalism at the University of King's College in Halifax.