Libel Reform Hustings poll – the results

The ballots are in, they’ve been badly counted and the winner of last night’s completely unscientific poll is Dr Evan Harris, the Liberal Democrats science spokesman*

1. Who do you think defended freedom of speech the best?

Michael Wills — Labour                  2
Evan Harris — Liberal Democrat   55
Dominic Grieve — Conservative     12

2. Whose proposed reforms of our libel laws were you most favourable to?

Michael Wills —- Labour               2
Evan Harris — Liberal Democrat  58
Dominic Grieve — Conservative    9

3. Whose arguments did you find the most convincing?

Michael Wills —- Labour                 3
Evan Harris — Liberal Democrat   52
Dominic Grieve — Conservative      15

***This is in no way an endorsement of any political party by Index on Censorship

Labour lines up on libel

The Labour party launched its election manifesto this morning (12 April).

Among the 33,000 words (longer even than 1983’s “longest suicide note in history”, trivia fans) was this little sentence:

“To encourage freedom of speech and access to information,we will bring forward new legislation on libel to protect the right of defendants to speak freely”

This, undoubtedly, is A Good Thing. Moreover, it now means that all three mainstream parties have committed to reforming our libel laws in the next parliament.

The Lib Dems were first there, adopting the principle at their conference last year. And on Friday, Conservative shadow justice secretary Dominic Grieve told the Libel Reform Campaign:

“the Conservative party is committed, if elected, to undertaking a fundamental review of the libel laws with a view to enacting legislation to reform them. This reform could best be done by means of a separate Libel Bill and this is the preferred approach for us.”

While we’re at it, we should mention that Amnesty has also lent its support to the campaign.

Sile Lane of Sense About Science and I will be representing the Libel Reform Coalition tonight at Westminster Skeptics in London, along with Simon Singh, Dave Gorman, Nick Cohen, Evan Harris, Joanne Cash and Jack of Kent.

Index welcomes Jack Straw’s commitment to libel reform

The Justice Secretary, Jack Straw, will today announce reform of English libel law at a mass lobby of Parliament organised by The Libel Reform Campaign led by English PEN, Index on Censorship and Sense About Science.

The Justice Secretary will outline the Government is committed to a single publication rule; a consultation into whether a statutory public interest defence can be developed in a way which balances competing interests concerning freedom of expression and reputation; procedural changes around rules and practice in relation to service out of the jurisdiction, to deal with “libel tourism” and work on other procedural issues e.g. early resolution of meaning and strengthening the pre-action protocol to stop lawyers running up unnecessary costs.

The commitment by the Labour Government comes after Nick Clegg committed the Liberal Democrats to radical reform on 18 January. Campaigners and now asking David Cameron whether the Conservative Party will commit to reform.

The Libel Reform Campaign is “pleased that action is being taken” but has asked for a commitment from the government to reform:

  • A clearer defence of “fair comment” in law;
  • Removal of internet chat and interactive online services like blogs from liability
  • Preventing corporations and associations from using libel law , restricting them to malicious falsehood.

Jack Straw’s statement and the Libel Reform Campaign mass lobby of Parliament will be held in Committee Room 14 between 2 – 3pm

Jo Glanville, the Editor of Index on Censorship said

Labour have shown a commitment to freedom of expression, albeit a late one, by clearly stating they will reform our libel laws. We’re pleased Jack Straw has taken our recommendations seriously, and has come up with some significant proposed reforms, though we would like to see a clearer fair comment defence and an exemption of corporations from libel law.

Tracey Brown, the Managing Director of Sense About Science said:

It would be ludicrous for any party to suggest we should continue with these unfair and ridiculed libel laws that’s why we’re glad Labour have announced a commitment to reform. We need freedom of speech that we can exercise confidently, to discuss science and medicine or any other subject of public interest. Not semi-feudal laws that tie people up in court for two years and chill public discussion.

Jonathan Heawood, the Director of English PEN said:

We still haven’t heard from the Tories who claim to be championing individual liberty. We hope David Cameron will listen to the 44,000 people who have signed the libel reform petition. The level of popular support for reform shows that this law is not just about journalists but human rights activists, scientists and academics, even mothers chatting online: free expression really is an issue for everyone.

The Libel Reform Campaign is a coalition of English PEN, Index on Censorship and Sense About Science.

Phone hacking: Coulson meets the committee

This is a guest post by Lily Ash Sakula

News of the World editors past and present were called before the parliamentary Culture Media and Sport Committee to defend themselves against allegations of widespread illegal practices today [Tuesday 21 July].

Current NotW editor Colin Myler and former editor Andy Coulson insisted jailed reporter Clive Goodman was a rogue operator and had acted alone in hacking the phones of celebrities and royals. Myler also insisted that senior NotW reporter Neville Thurlbeck had “no recollection” of receiving an email of the a transcript of Professional Footballer’s Association chief Gordon Taylor’s voicemail messages (revealed to the committee by Guardian journalist Nick Davies last week) despite the fact the email stated that it was “for Neville”.

Pressed on whether he had ever thought stories at News of the World had been obtained illegally, Myler answered “not really”.

Adam Price MP highlighted the fact that in a story from News of the World “Chelsy tears strip off Harry” a voicemail message between the Princes William and Harry had been quoted verbatim, and asked how the editors could not have been aware of phone hacking when reviewing it. Coulson said he had ‘no recollection’ of this particular story.

Andy Coulson made a short opening statement to the effect that he had “no recollection” of phone tapping occurring while he was editor, that the PCC code was rigorously upheld during his time, and that “he made no apology” for the fact that the News of the World sometimes did pay out large sums of money to get a story. He said he took responsibility for what had gone on under his leadership “without my knowledge” and this had caused his resignation. He also admitted that “mistakes were made” and that “the system could have been better”. At the end of the session Coulson revealed that he had recently been approached by Scotland Yard because there was evidence his own phone was being tapped.