Jack Straw’s move is welcome, but cosmetic surgery won’t be enough to end this international embarrassment, writes Jo Glanville
Jack Straw’s announcement at the weekend that he was committed to reforming libel law is a significant step forward in the campaign to tackle our infamous laws. Does it mark a sea change? The justice minister’s evidence to the culture, media and sport select committee’s inquiry on libel earlier this year did not suggest that he had been convinced that fundamental reform was required. It now seems that the government can no longer afford to ignore the growing demands for action since Index on Censorship and English PEN published the results of their own inquiry on 10 November.
The Ministry of Justice has so far embarked on a piecemeal programme of reform — addressing costs and single publication. Both are welcome, but neither goes far enough. Index on Censorship and English PEN’s recommendations propose a comprehensive revision of libel law. They include reversing the burden of proof; establishing a tribunal that would take the financial sting out of libel; preventing large and medium-sized corporations from suing; protecting service providers from the chilling effect of takedown notices; and stemming the tide of libel tourism. The justice minister has said that he was impressed by the recommendations. Let us hope that he will translate such a welcome response into positive action.
Our libel laws have become an international embarrassment. Since the global revolution in communication of the past decade, our archaic laws have become not just a handicap for free speech in the UK, they also threaten websites, bloggers, publishers and newspapers worldwide. Anyone who communicates online or sells their books and articles on the internet is at risk of ending up in an English court, however tenuous the claimant’s connections may be to the UK. British editors and publishers have had to live with the headache of legal action for decades. It is only now that we are exporting our censorious laws around the world — and getting a bad reputation for disabling free speech — that the government perhaps realises that it’s time to address the problem.
Cosmetic surgery will not be sufficient. What’s required now is reform that addresses the chilling effect of libel on every level. English libel law is based on a 19th century model of communication. It predates the revolution in mass communication, never mind the advent of the internet. It therefore needs to catch up fast. As things stand, libel law hampers the free flow of information. American publishers have already begun to stop circulating their publications in the UK. It is also slowing down communication online. All it takes right now is a letter threatening legal action for a service provider to remove a blog or post, or for a publisher or editor to withdraw a book or spike an article. Reform will not create a press out of control (as many seem to fear), it will liberate us all — bloggers, NGOs, writers and publishers — from an unnecessary tyranny.
The government has already shown that it can set the agenda when it recently repealed seditious libel and criminal defamation. Let us hope it can be similarly enlightened on this question too.