Libel Reform Campaign goes to Westminster
Liam Hodkinson: Libel Reform Campaign goes to Westminster
23 Mar 10

Index on Censorship, English PEN and Sense About Science took the Libel Reform Campaign in Westminster today (23 March).

In a packed lobby room in the House of Commons, ministers from the justice departments of the UK’s three main political parties committed to reforming the country’s libel laws, which are considered to be biased towards claimants and hostile to journalists and scientists.

Justice Secretary Jack Straw pledged to create a draft libel reform bill after the general election; a commitment that was reiterated in principle by the Liberal Democrat justice spokesman and the Conservative Party’s Shadow minister for justice.

Straw thanked Index on Censorship, English Pen and Sense about Science for their work in the Libel Reform Campaign. The three non-governmental organisations outlined the need for urgent libel reform with the publication of a report on the subject last November. Entitled Free Speech is not for Sale, the study concluded that the cost of defending a libel action is prohibitive and that, in libel, the dependant is guilty until proven innocent.

Earlier today Straw spoke to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, pledging to end the abuse of the libel system and bring about the end of libel tourism.

The justice secretary said the government will improve the rules governing internet defamation and offer greater protection to journalists with a number of new reforms in the next Parliament.

Straw also published the findings of the Libel Working Group, which has recommended that the government address the issue of single publication, protect publication in the public interest and prevent the continuing growth of libel tourism.

“There have been horrific examples where scientists are being sued for alleged defamation,” he said. “Ending libel tourism is very important, dealing with this problem of multiple publication, extending the defence of fair comment so there is a statutory defence for responsible journalism.”

He added that the changes planned reflect concerns that libel laws are “constraining freedom of expression”.

This viewpoint was supported in front of 150 campaign supporters — including philosopher AC Grayling and playwright Michael Frayn — by David Howarth, Liberal Democrat justice secretary. He even suggested that reforms should go as far as banning corporate bodies from being able to use libel at all, an idea also mooted by Fiona Godlee, editor of the British Medical Journal.

Henry Bellingham, the shadow minister for justice, agreed in principle with Straw’s proposals, but expressed concern that access to justice is reserved for those that need it. He did, however, commit to forming a draft bill by the end of 2010 — should the Conservatives win the next election — and reassured campaigners that the opposition party takes the issue “very seriously”.