More to be done on Defamation Bill
The Libel Reform Campaign welcomes the Government’s commitment to a Defamation Bill but current proposals do not yet address the extensive problems of libel bullying and the chill on public debate
01 Mar 12

The Libel Reform Campaign welcomes the Government’s commitment to a Defamation Bill but current proposals do not yet address the extensive problems of libel bullying and the chill on public debate

The Ministry of Justice has published a statement in response to the report of the Joint Scrutiny Committee on the Draft Defamation Bill last year. Its commitment to a Bill is welcome recognition of the serious problems faced by NGOs, scientists, bloggers and authors – problems set out in wide-ranging evidence by the Libel Reform Campaign and by hundreds of individuals and organisations.

The Government has said it will make changes to introduce a single publication rule and reduce libel tourism and has proposed many beneficial and well-grounded changes to procedure and existing defences. However, the Government’s initial response falls short of what is needed in some important areas:

The current libel laws chill speech on matters of public interest and on expressions of opinion on matters in the public realm. We need a new effective statutory public interest defence. Instead, the Government is only proposing minor changes to an already complex, unwieldy and expensive defence, called “Reynolds Privilege”.

Libel laws are used by corporations and associations to squash any criticism and manage their brand. The laws need rebalancing to protect the ordinary individual or responsible publisher, by restricting the ability of such “non-natural persons” to sue for libel or threaten to do so.

The law allows trivial and vexatious claims. There should be easier “strike out” of trivial or inappropriate claims at an early stage.

We know that a great deal of work and preparation for the Bill has already been done by the Ministry of Justice and others. The Libel Reform Campaign and others have set out clearly what a Bill should address with regard to public interest, ISPs and corporations. We are therefore confident that the Government could easily set out more substantive reforms, consistent with its stated commitment to better protection of free speech, within the current timetable. We look forward to discussing the Government’s proposals on providing greater protection for online intermediaries over coming weeks. Our aim is to ensure the Bill it will publish in May delivers on the manifesto commitments for true reform, and responds to public and cross-party support for the change that is needed to protect the discussion of public interest issues.

Jonathan Heawood, Director, English PEN:

We have heard overwhelming evidence from scientists, bloggers, investigative journalists and authors that libel law urgently needs to be reformed. Our view is that the Government’s initial response falls short of what’s required for a bill that addresses their concerns. It’s hard to understand this diluted response to the public and parliamentary calls for meaningful libel reform.”

John Kampfner, Chief Executive, Index on Censorship: 

“We are disappointed to learn that the Government does not intend to address corporations’ use of libel laws to silence criticism in the defamation bill. There are numerous recent instances of corporate bodies and other organisations intimidating individuals who submit their products and practices to scrutiny. We urge the Government to take the opportunity to introduce measures that would constitute a fairer remedy.”

Tracey Brown, Managing Director, Sense About Science:

“Health, scientific research, consumer safety, history and human rights are among the many discussions being suppressed by fear of libel action. The Government knows this. But it needs to go further than the current proposals to achieve the better and workable protection for free speech that has been promised.”

Simon Singh, science writer and defendant in BCA v Singh:

I am regularly hearing from scientists, journalists, bloggers and others who have raised concerns over matters of public interest, but who are then confronted by a libel threat aimed at silencing them. Of course, that is just the tip of the iceberg. There are also the cases that I never get to hear about, and there is the pernicious chilling effect of libel, whereby writers censor their own work for fear of being hauled into court. Each week that passes means that more writers are prevented from speaking out, which means that the public often does not get to hear the truth about everything from bogus medical treatments to consumer issues. If the Queen’s Speech does not contain a libel reform bill, then this will mean that the United Kingdom will continue to be a global disgrace on the issue of free speech, and we will continue to live in a society where we are not allowed to hear the whole truth.”

Dr Evan Harris, policy advisor to the Libel Reform Campaign:

“We need reform that not only provides clear and effective defences to frivolous and chilling libel actions but also sufficiently high hurdles before people are dragged into expensive court actions so that vexatious or trivial libel suits are deterred.”

Charmian Gooch, Director, Global Witness: 

“Citizens in this country have a right to expect responsible and serious public interest reporting. Currently such reporting is simply not protected. It needs a strong public interest defence. It is deeply disappointing that the government appears to be backing away from this.”

In November 2011 organisations and individuals who have battled libel threats including Citizens Advice, Mumsnet, Nature, Global Witness, Which? magazine, Facebook, The Publishers Association, Liberty, AOL (UK) and libel defendants Simon Singh and Dr Peter Wilmshurst told the Minister of State for Justice Lord McNally that a bill to reform the laws to protect public interest discussion must be in the Queen’s Speech in May 2012.

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