A victory for libel reform
Jo Glanville: A victory for libel reform
24 Mar 10

This article originally appeared on Comment is free

Jack Straw’s announcement yesterday on libel law reform marks a significant sea change. Ten months ago, the justice secretary told the select committee inquiry on libel, privacy and press standards that he had yet to be convinced that there was a significant problem with libel tourism – where foreign claimants bring their cases to English courts. He is now proposing to limit the ease with which foreign claimants can be heard in this jurisdiction, as well as introducing a single publication rule and considering a statutory defence to protect publications that are in the public interest. He has, in short, acknowledged that the balance was tipped too far in favour of protecting reputation at the expense of free expression.

His support for reform is testament to the lobbying power of a rarealliance of campaigners who provided compelling evidence that libel reform was not simply about protecting the interests of the media establishment, but about safeguarding the free speech of the public as a whole – whether it’s the freedom of a cardiologist to critique a surgical device or the freedom of a science writer to question the efficacy of alternative medicine. Proposals for reform that seemed unpopular and unfeasible just a year ago now sound like common sense. The select committee’s whole-hearted support for reform in its report on privacy, libel and press standards last month was, without doubt, an important endorsement and the final push for change.

This is not, however, the end of the story. One of Straw’s more controversial changes – slashing lawyers’ success fees in conditional fee agreements – is now being threatened with judicial review and it’s likely that his latest proposals will meet with further resistance. Nor are all the justice secretary’s proposals secure: Straw has announced that no more than “consideration” will be given to one of the most important reforms of all – creating a statutory public interest defence. For NGOs investigating corruption and scientists criticising treatments, this remains a much-needed protection. Over the past few months, NGOs (Index on Censorship, English Pen and Sense about Science) have sent evidence to the libel reform campaign that details the extent to which fear of libel action is inhibiting publication of research that is clearly in the public interest.

Furthermore, while the welcome introduction of a single publication rule goes a long way towards rescuing the internet from the tyranny of a 19th-century precedent, which has ensured that every download of a story was a new publication and therefore potentially a new libel suit, there is still need for enlightened reform. Mr Justice Eady, much reviled for being the bane of free speech, wisely suggested last month that there was need for an international agreement that would address the new challenges posed by the internet. Let’s hope that Labour can follow through its promise of a libel reform bill in the next parliament. While Dominic Grieve dismissed the proposals yesterday as “pre-election posturing”, Jack Straw’s blow for free speech prompted the Conservative party to declare its strongest support to date for reform. Let’s hope they all mean it.

By Jo Glanville

Jo Glanville is editor of Looking for an enemy: eight essays on antisemitism (Short Books) and Qissat: short stories by Palestinian women (Telegram/Saqi Books). She is a former editor of Index on Censorship.