Watershed year for investigative journalism and free debate
Speculation around Lord Justice Leveson's expected report this autumn has overshadowed the vital libel reform identified in the Queen's speech, says Kirsty Hughes
10 May 12

kirsty 140x140newSpeculation around Lord Justice Leveson’s expected report this autumn has overshadowed the vital libel reform identified in the Queen’s speech, says Kirsty Hughes

This piece originally appeared on Independent Blogs

It is a watershed moment for press freedom and for freedom of speech in the UK. By the end of 2012, we could have pressed the reset button both to ensure British journalism represents the best in investigative and high quality reporting, and to strengthen freedom of speech and comment across the board. Or, if the wrong choices are made, 2012 could be the moment when British press freedom is curtailed and when wider freedom of speech and provocative scientific debate,online and off, is dampened and constrained.

Lord Justice Leveson’s report into press standards is due in the autumn – prompting much speculation about his likely recommendations. But less attention has gone to one vital line in the Queen’s Speech promising a Bill to reform England’s outdated, and inhibiting, libel laws.

Libel law has inhibited freedom of expression here for years, as the threat of high costs, and potentially high (though capped) awards,  either lead authors — journalists, researchers, bloggers —  to self-censor from the start or to back down rapidly when faced with threats of legal action.

Taken together, Leveson’s report and the defamation Bill are likely to transform freedom of speech, free comment and freedom of the press in the UK – for better or for worse.

Leveson is still taking evidence but one crunch issue is what form of new, independent regulatory body he may propose for the British media – and whether he goes for statutory powers to force print media to sign up to the new body. A statutory solution would be a dangerous moment for journalism: allowing government intervention where self-regulation has always been seen as vital to press freedom ensuring independence in who publishes, on what topics, in what ways. Or will Leveson adopt other routes to both improving editorial standards and reinforcing the media’s ability to carry out high quality investigative journalism?

When Leveson reports this autumn, it is probable the libel Bill will be going through its final reading in Parliament. A draft version of the Bill already exists, and the government is expected to table the final version rapidly after the Queen’s Speech.

There are some important steps to welcome in the draft Bill. In particular, it will tackle “libel tourism”. This is very welcome:  current laws allow people and corporations outside the country to bring expensive and chilling cases in the UK even when the main place of publication is elsewhere – and where even a few people accessing an article online in the UK can provide the excuse to use British courts.

But other parts of the Bill are more worrying. The government risks missing this key opportunity to ensure the UK is a country where free speech, robust scientific debate and tough investigative journalism are promoted and defended. One big concern is that the draft Bill does not offer a strong public interest defence to ensure that journalists, bloggers, scientists or others engaging in path-breaking analysis, research and debate, can expose public or criminal wrongdoing.

The need for a strong, effective public interest defence is a key question for Leveson too. There are various UK laws that currently should but do not contain such a defence, including the libel laws, the Official Secrets Act, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, and the Computer Misuse Act. Without public interest safeguards for responsible investigative journalism, and for other researchers and analysts, the reporting that exposed News of the World hacking, or the publishing of challenging scientific debates, will be squashed and restricted – the long finally unsuccessful case for libel against science writer Simon Singh in the Guardian being a case in point.

Both Leveson and libel reform affect the climate for freedom of speech and free enquiry in ways that go far beyond the borders of traditional media.  While the government is proposing a process in the defamation bill that will provide welcome protection for internet service providers from bullying and threats, at the same time there are plans to provide the police and intelligence with further powers to access online communications.

And there are also risks – unless tackled by Leveson – that whistle-blowing (whether from government, police or other public or private bodies) could be seriously threatened as a fall-out from some of the more unsavoury practices of one media group. Yet whistle-blowing to the media, to researchers or bloggers, and to other outlets has time and again proved a vital part of exposing government and corporate wrongdoing – the MPs’ expenses scandal being just one of many pertinent examples. Statutory regulation of contact between police and journalists or politicians and journalists could be seriously damaging.

We hope that 2012 will go down as the year when the UK stood out as a global leader in setting new standards to protect and promote freedom of expression and high quality, investigate journalism. The risk is it could go down as the year of missed opportunity and increased constraints on freedom of speech.

Kirsty Hughes is Index on Censorship’s chief executive