Guardian round table examines Libel Reform
Emily Butselaar: Guardian round table examines Libel Reform
15 Feb 10

In the wake of the John Terry case the Guardian gathered a panel of libel experts — including Index’s Chief Executive John Kampfner – to debate legal reform.

The discussion, chaired by the Guardian’s Director of editorial legal services, Gill Phillips, included three claimant media lawyers, Dominic Crossley from the law firm Collyer Bristow, Sarah Webb from Russell Jones & Walker and Jonathan Coad from Swan Turton; Kampfner, Jane Martinson, MediaGuardian’s Editor, and  Gavin Millar a QC from Doughty Street Chamber who represents the press lined up on the other side.

The panel covered libel tourism, the public interest defence, codification, costs, procedure, juries and the burden of proof.

Libel tourism is a non-existent issue if you speak to claimant lawyers and judges — see Lord Hoffman’s speech earlier this month — but there’s an interesting quote from Millar who claims that our claimant-friendly system is particularly hospitable to the wealthy and powerful.

We have to be very careful about saying that there aren’t many visible cases of forum-shopping. Most of my American clients who have libel claims filed against them in the high court have stopped fighting them. They’ve decided it’s not worth it any more. Other foreign clients are reluctant to write on the internet because they are scared of being sued. The current law was formulated on the basis of principles designed for commercial cases, not for 21st-century media cases with significant freedom of expression elements.

John Kampfner argued libel law as it stands is chilling free speech, forcing journalists to self-censor. He gave an example.

[A] good broadsheet editor told me that his board had said to him: ‘Please lay off the oligarchs – it’s just not worth our while.’ How can you quantify that? Things are not reaching the courts in the first place because the journalism is not being done. That is what the current law is doing.

The only area the group seem to have found any common ground was an agreement that costs are spiraling. If you want an illustration of why the cost of defending a libel action is prohibitive, look no further that a recent example provided by Private Eye. The magazine reports that model Matt Peacock accepted £15,000 from the Sunday Mirror after the paper claimed his relationship with his former wife Jodie Marsh was violent. The legal costs were eye-watering. Carter Ruck claimed £380,000, an astonishing 25 times more than their client received.