Gosh, how I miss the departed former chief justice and governor general Sir Vincent Floissac. Oh, he had his faults. At any rate what appeared from our not always unprejudiced perspectives to be faults.
How well I remember a particular morning at his Chambers when, in the middle of a captivating discussion about the best and worst writers on the bench, he seemed suddenly to segue off course. A slight smile playing around his lips and just a soupçon of mischief lighting up his eyes that had seen far more than most of us ever will, he said: “Let’s not pretend those of us who sit on the Privy Council have been blessed with the perspicacity of Solomon. Nothing could be further from the truth.”
His demeanor abruptly reminiscent of a judge about to deliver a death sentence, he added: “The Privy Council is simply a body of hardly infallible fellow human beings whose words on certain matters we’ve agreed will be taken as final. That doesn’t mean Privy Council verdicts are always wise, always fair, always just and beyond further argument. The Privy Council has never been infallible!”
I especially miss Sir Vincent for his always perspicacious counsel. His door was always open to those of us who needed to hear his side of an argument of national importance. He never rushed to judgment. More often than you might imagine, considering his vast experience in matters of law and justice, he would ask that I call him at home in the late afternoon, after he’d had his siesta, of course, and an opportunity further to research a particular situation. Sometimes, he’d simply direct me to a section of the Constitution or to a related Privy Council or Appeal Court decision.
Almost always, he’d follow up his advice with this self-preserving caution: “Please don’t quote me in your article and, whatever else you might do, don’t mention me on TV.”
Sir Vincent liked nothing more than to be of service, if only via media representatives such as myself (and at least one other person that I am not free here to identify!). More than once, when something was especially hot in the atmosphere and I needed to hear from him, Sir Vincent would laugh out loud, then say: “I’ve been expecting your call. What took you so long this time?”
He never said no to an invitation to address the Saint Lucia Media Association back when it actually meant and stood for something. I well remember him saying at an awards ceremony, altogether cognizant of the political pressures heaped on journalists by self-important incumbent politicians, that the law was very much on the side of the resented press—if only journalists knew it.
Doubtless Sir Vincent also was well aware local journalists are as disinclined to read even their own pieces, let alone important matters relating to our profession and the law; that effectively we were our own worst enemies!
He would have had nothing to say about the present storm in a thimble that the justice minister had last week triggered all by himself, let alone the not so subtle threats to the local media. At any rate, not publicly.
On the other hand, he’d have been more than happy to tell it like it is to any journalist in need of his wisdom. Thanks to Sir Vincent, I developed a passion for researching the law, especially as it applies to the free expression. I am particularly fond of the arguments, for and against, that the Privy Council and the U.S. Supreme Court are required to settle.
Among my favorite legal blockbusters: Miller v. California. New York Times v. Sullivan. Hustler Magazine, Inc. v. Falwell. Then there is Hector v. the Attorney General of Antigua and Barbuda, and Others. And Reynolds v. Times Newspapers. Also Galloway MP and The Telegraph Group Ltd.
Consider this from the earlier mentioned Reynolds matter, by Lord Nicholls of Birkenhead: “The defense of qualified privilege must be seen in its overall setting in the law of defamation. Historically the common law has set much score by protection of reputation. Publication of a statement adversely affecting a person’s reputation is actionable.
“The plaintiff is not required to prove that the words are false. Nor, in the case of publication in a written or permanent form, is he required to prove he has been damaged. But, as Littledale J. said in McPherson v.Daniels, ‘the law will not permit a man to recover damages in respect of an injury to a character which he does not or ought not to possess.’
“Truth is the complete defence. If the defendant proves the substantial truth of the words complained of, he thereby establishes the defence of justification. With the minor exception of proceedings to which the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act of 1974 applies, this defence is of universal application in civil proceedings. It avails a defendant even if he is acting spitefully.
“The common law has long recognized ‘the chilling effect’ of this rigorous, reputation protective principle. There must be exceptions. At times people must be able to speak and write freely, uninhibited by the prospect of being sued for damages should they be mistaken or misinformed. In the wider public interest, protection of reputation must then give way to a higher priority.”
Still from Reynolds: “One established exception is the defence of comment on a matter of public interest. This defence is available to everyone, and is of particular importance to the media. The freedom of expression protected by this defence has long been regarded by the common law as a basic right, long before the emergence of human rights conventions. In 1863 Crompton J. observed in Campbell v. Spottiswood that ‘it is the right of all the Queen’s subjects to discuss public matters.’
“The defence is wide in its scope. Public interest has never been defined, but in London Artists Ltd v. Little (1969) Lord Denning M.R. rightly said that it is not to be confined with narrow limits. He continued: ‘Whenever a matter is such as to affect people at large, so that they may be legitimately interested in, or concerned at, what is going on; or what may happen to them or others; then it is a matter of public interest on which everyone is entitled to make fair comment.’ ”
At this point, let us just for a moment return to the Justice Minister v. The Press (represented in this instance by “media terrorist” Timothy Poleon). On TV last week the minister threatened that if anyone thinks he is after just a retraction, let them think again.
Is he then seeking to cash in on what he hopes might deliver a million-dollar verdict in his favor? In any event, how does Timothy “retract” statements he never made, true or false? To my recollection, he read an article that had been on the World Wide Web for at least two days, doubtless read by hundreds of thousands of people interested in Caribbean affairs; even Saint Lucians.
The particular article had earlier featured on another news station, so far with no complaints from the justice minister. So now, does the minister expect Timothy to undo whatever wrong he allegedly committed? How does the newscaster plan to unread what he has already read?
But then, what do I know? When it comes to things legal, I am neither a kilibwi nor the eagle that was Sir Vincent. May he rest in peace, despite the nonstop mediocrity rains!