This article was originally published in The Times
Sometimes the most reasonable-looking laws can cause the most damage. Let’s hope members of the Leveson inquiry into media ethics are familiar with this awkward fact. In France, stringent privacy laws have prevented investigation into the dodgy financial dealings of leading public figures. In Hungary, a media law has in a matter of months emasculated a free press, leading to radio stations being closed down and reporters and editors fired. That law includes many items on the wish lists of several witnesses to the inquiry, such as press regulation, licensing and fines.
In the UK journalists pride themselves on the irreverence and bolshiness of their newspapers. Yet despite the outrageous behaviour that led to the phone-hacking scandal, the real problem with Britain’s press is that it is too weak. It finds out far too little. If the job of journalism is to put into the public domain inconvenient truths that the rich and powerful would like to hide, then the performance of Britain’s press is nothing to be proud of. Part of this is economic (investigations are costly); laziness is another factor.
By far the biggest reason, however, is the number of laws that impede proper scrutiny. The most pernicious area is our defamation culture. Index on Censorship, together with its partners, has been leading the campaign to reform England’s libel laws. A defamation Bill has been drafted and should be included in the Queen’s Speech in May, as ministers have promised. Libel reform was, after all, part of the coalition agreement.
London has for years been a rich men’s playground, with oligarchs, oil barons and autocrats using our plaintiff-friendly courts to bully bloggers, newspapers and civil society groups. It was bad enough when the creators of South Park satirised our legal system (with Tom Cruise threatening: “I’m going to sue you — in England!”), but when President Obama signed into law the Speech Act, designed to protect Americans from English libel rulings, we went from farce to tragedy. MP’s rightly described that action as a “national humiliation” for the UK.
Until recently, libel reform appeared on course; broad consensus has been achieved on the main points of a final Bill. Yet some are now calling for delay, for defamation to be thrown into the post-Leveson soup. This would be folly. As he proceeds in his vital task of improving the standards of British journalism, Lord Justice Leveson should make clear that his inquiry will not be used as a device to delay implementation of a law that goes to the heart of democracy and the public’s right to know.
John Kampfner is chief executive of Index on Censorship