Robinson v Furlong 2015 BCSC 1690
From Ad IDEM / CMLA
In a rare instance, a journalist brought a defamation action against the person about whom she wrote.
The question addressed by the court was whether Ms. Robinson attacked Mr. Furlong's character and conduct in a manner that entitled him to strike back with the words he used. In other words, was Mr. Furlong's response an occasion of qualified privilege, protecting him from Ms. Robinson's defamation claim?
Ms. Robinson investigated and published claims by some individuals alleging physical and emotional abuse while Mr. Furlong was a teacher at a parochial school in Burns Lake in 1969.
Mr. Furlong denied the allegations and countered by giving press conferences and interviews where he was strongly critical of Ms. Robinson's journalistic methods and reporting accuracy.
Ms. Robinson argued that the defence of qualified privilege was not available to Mr. Furlong because she did not, herself, accuse him of the serious misconduct at issue; instead, she merely reported the accusations of others.
Both Ms. Robinson and Mr. Furlong advanced expert opinion evidence at trial with respect to Ms. Robinson's investigative techniques when looking into Mr. Furlong's past.
Ms. Robinson's expert, John Miller, produced the "Miller Report" in which he advanced a definition of investigative journalism and gave an opinion on the way in which Ms. Robinson had conducted her investigation.
Mr. Furlong tendered the expert opinion of Dr. John Yulle, who was qualified as an expert in human memory, and, more specifically the procedures for conducting interviews to obtain reliable information concerning allegations of historical (childhood) sexual abuse.
Madam Justice Wedge came to the following conclusions:
a) Ms. Robinson’s publications concerning Mr. Furlong cannot be fairly characterized as the reporting of other persons’ allegations against him. Rather, the publications constitute an attack by Ms. Robinson on Mr. Furlong’s character, conduct and credibility.
b) Each of Mr. Furlong’s statements was bona fide and responsive to Ms. Robinson’s attack on him. His statements were, accordingly, occasions of qualified privilege.
c) Mr. Furlong’s responses did not exceed the privileged occasions on which they were made, nor were they actuated by malice.
In the result, Mr. Furlong’s defence of qualified privilege is a full answer to Ms. Robinson’s defamation claim.