Lord Lester’s Defamation Bill is the first attempt in over a century to redraft libel laws that are unfair, internationally criticised and against the public interest. Our libel laws are unnecessarily complicated and unduly costly, defences are uncertain and narrow and the laws haven’t kept up with the information age. They are damaging freedom of expression and the open exchange of information worldwide.
The libel laws have been exposed as unjust
English PEN and Index on Censorship’s Free Speech is not For Sale report made 10 recommendations for fairer laws; the Culture Media and Sport Select Committee report on Press Standards Privacy and Libel called for far reaching reforms; a Ministry of Justice report said the law needs reforming in the public interest.
There is a public outcry about the chill on free speech
Over 500 commentators, comedians, poets and authors have spoken out and over 52,000 people have signed the libel reform campaign petition. Fifty organisations including Royal Medical Colleges, human rights NGOs, medical and science bodies, authors, bloggers, publishers and media and law organisations have called for reform. Hundreds of people have reported threats of libel action leading them to remove articles, blogs, reviews, academic papers, reports and books. Vital issues of public interest are affected including drug safety, human rights abuses and corporate behaviour.
There is widespread Parliamentary support for reform. The majority of eligible MPs signed up to an EDM supporting libel law reform.6
There were general election manifesto commitments to reform the libel laws from the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and Labour…
There is a coalition Government promise to reform the libel laws.
Now it’s time to change the law!
In light of Lord Lester’s Bill, the Libel Reform Campaign is asking: will the Government now make clear its plans for reform? Will it support, adopt or develop this Bill?
Jonathan Heawood Director, English PEN said: “The current libel laws give international bullies licence to silence criticism. Until we have a clear public interest defence human rights activists, NGOs, authors, publishers, scientists and bloggers will continue to be threatened and sued.”
John Kampfner Chief Executive, Index on Censorship said: “There have been piecemeal reforms to our libel laws before but the big problems have not been resolved. The Duke of Brunswick ruling predates the lightbulb, but is still in use today to silence online debate. That is why we welcome this attempt to modernise the libel laws for the internet age.”
Tracey Brown Managing Director, Sense About Science said: With every week that passes, we are contacted by yet more writers and researchers who have been threatened with libel action. In the face of high costs and weak defences, they withdraw their articles, hold back their material from public discussion and, in the end, stop asking vital questions of public interest. Lord Lester’s Bill should be considered urgently by the Government.
Dr Evan Harris, the Liberal Democrat former MP who chaired the cross-party group for manifesto commitments for libel reform said: “Libel law reform is needed to prevent the chilling of comment which is in the public interest. It is therefore essential for scientists and academics and giving their opinion in good faith and responsibly, and their publishers, to know at the time of publication that they will have an effective defence against an unjustified libel plaintiff. Lord Lester’s skilfully crafted bill is one way of doing that and also offers the Government a vehicle for legislation following their review.”