DCMS Cycling Report and Sir Bradley Wiggins - Is press coverage protected by parliamentary privilege?

Published 14 March 2018 By: Persephone Bridgman Baker

DCMS Cycling Report and Sir Bradley Wiggins - Is press coverage protected by parliamentary privilege? No video selected.

After the release of the UK Parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee Report,1 Sir Bradley Wiggins has become press prey as stories abound about a possible doping scandal.2 Sir Bradley has responded by refuting the allegations and has called it a "malicious"3 campaign, leading commentators to question whether the Report and related press coverage is protected by parliamentary privilege.  Here's a brief lap around the law on the topic.

Race prep

It is defamatory to publish untrue allegations which cause serious harm to someone's reputation (see this article on handling false allegations4). However, the Parliamentary Papers Act 1840 provides that the reporting of Parliamentary Committee Reports is always protected by absolute privilege unless the publication is not bona fide ("without intention to deceive”) i.e. is malicious.

This statutory immunity allows publishers to report material discussed in Parliament or Parliamentary Reports without threat of libel proceedings, insofar as those reports are bona fide. If, for example, a famous footballer obtained a super-injunction against the press and a newspaper leaked the name of that footballer to a Parliamentary committee, a publication of the name of the footballer by that newspaper would be a male fide report.

Race day

The recent Digital Culture Media and Sport Select Committee Report, entitled "Combating doping in Sport", detailed the use5 by Olympic and Tour de France winning British cyclist Sir Bradley Wiggins of a corticosteroid covered by a Therapeutic Use Exemption (permitting the use of certain otherwise banned substances in prescribed medical circumstances).

Wiggins claims the use was legitimate and that he has been the subject of a smear campaign.6

Publishers are entitled to cover the content of the Report and are protected from potential defamation claims resulting from the publication of untrue allegations that could cause serious harm to Sir Bradley Wiggins' reputation, as long as they have not acted with malice.  Regulated publishers are still bound by the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) Editor's Code of Practice and must ensure their coverage is accurate and must distinguish between comment, conjecture and fact.

Finish line

Sensationalist headlines sell newspapers, but they should still be representative of the article. Some publishers are breaking away from the peloton - as an example:

The Sun: "Piers Morgan has reportedly branded Wiggins "a flaming cheat" and "disgusting"."7

Daily Mail: "Sir Bradley DID take drug to win 2012 Tour de France".8

It is questionable whether such remarks are properly confined to the Report, albeit the underlying articles properly represent it and would be protected by the privilege afforded by the Parliamentary Papers Act. Moreover, as the Report is protected by Parliamentary privilege, an honest opinion based on that Report would be defensible under Section 3 of the Defamation Act 2013.

Race recovery

Wiggins is already speaking out and denying the allegations, and most newspapers are publishing his counter-offensive. However, it remains to be seen whether he is able to rescue his reputation from the damage already done by the Select Committee and the press. 

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Persephone Bridgman Baker

Persephone Bridgman Baker

Persephone is a senior associate at Carter-Ruck.

She read Law at the University of Cambridge and holds a postgraduate diploma in Intellectual Property Law and Practice from Oxford University. Persephone completed her training contract at international law firm, qualifying in March 2012 into the Litigation department. Her practice predominantly consisted of intellectual property work with a focus on soft IP, including copyright, design rights and trade marks, with an emphasis on online enforcement. Persephone joined Carter-Ruck in 2015 where she now combines her intellectual property practice with her work in the firm’s media litigation team, as well as on general commercial and intellectual property disputes.