English PEN and Index on Censorship are launching a public inquiry into libel legislation. The decision reflects increasing concern in this country and abroad about the extent to which our courts are being used, and abused, to stifle investigative journalism and chill free expression of all kinds.
The inquiry will invite submissions from publishers, writers, editors, journalists, lawyers and other interested parties. It will hold round-table discussions, leading to a major conference next spring.
The inquiry coincides with increasing concern in the House of Commons. The Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport is launching its own probe. In a related move, Denis MacShane MP has secured an adjournment debate on the operation of libel laws on Wednesday 17 December at 930am in Westminster Hall, with cross party support.
The United Nations Human Rights Committee has already signalled its concern that English libel law discourages:”Critical media reporting on matters of serious public interest, adversely affecting the ability of scholars and journalists to publish their work, including through the phenomenon known as libel tourism”.
Sir Geoffrey Bindman, one of Britain’s leading human rights lawyers, said of the joint inquiry: “There is a difficult balance to be struck between freedom of expression and the protection of the innocent from damaging falsehoods and invasion of legitimate privacy. In Britain, the pendulum has swung too far towards censorship. This comprehensive review of the law by two highly respected organisations is therefore very welcome.”