Talking in public

March 3rd, 2020 by James Goudie KC

A press conference given by senior politicians is not to be regarded as an occasion for casual statements. On the contrary, “there is a clear public interest that politicians talking in public should observe high accuracy and fairness”. This is because “the public need to know the position” and are inevitably influenced by what politicians say. See paragraph 36 in Ramadhar v Ramadhar (2020) UKPC 7.

On the other hand (paragraph 37), those who are themselves engaged in public life and courted the media, cannot expect to be free from scrutiny or criticism in public. “Politicians cannot expect to be free from banter and ridicule, good-humoured or otherwise, or from scrutiny of their motives”. If politicians were entitled to be protected (by the law of defamation) against mere criticism, that might have a “chilling effect on democratic debate”. As Brendeis J said in the UK Supreme Court, “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants”. Lady Arden added, at paragraph 43: “Politicians are not expected to be shrinking violets when answering their critics or giving their opinion as to what is in the public interest”; and, at paragraph 54, “The need for politicians to follow high standards in political debate and the expectation that politicians should be open to reasonable criticism are universal features of a democratic society”.

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