Unanimous backing for real freedom of the press

Aside from exposing the sins of News International, today’s MPs report boosts our campaign for libel reform, writes Jo Glanville

This article was first published in the Independent.

At the press conference launching the select committee’s report on press standards, privacy and libel, all that anyone wanted to talk about was the News of the World and phone hacking. The committee blasted News International and its witnesses for their “collective amnesia” in providing evidence to the inquiry and lamented the “substantial damage to the newspaper industry as a whole” of the phone hacking fiasco. Less attention was given to the inquiry’s call for libel reform – yet its recommendations are perhaps the most significant element of the report and an unequivocal support for press freedom.

Over the past 18 months, there has been an unprecedented groundswell for reform, as scientists, academics, NGOs, the media and pressure groups have lobbied for action. The committee’s recommendations echo many of those proposed by Index on Censorship and English PEN in a report published last November – tackling libel tourism, making it harder for corporations to sue, developing a public interest defence, reducing costs, a one-year limitation on internet publication. There has rarely been such a convergence of engagement by pressure groups and politicians on an issue. “There’s an opportunity for a thoroughgoing reform of our libel law,” said Paul Farrelly MP, an influential member of the committee.

When Jack Straw gave evidence to the committee last year, he appeared untroubled by the problem of libel tourism. Yet the phenomenon (where foreign claimants bring their libel actions to English courts) made a deep impression on the committee. A number of states in the US have introduced legislation to protect their citizens from being sued in our courts: “We believe it is more than an embarrassment to our system that legislators in the US should feel the need to take retaliatory steps to protect freedom of speech,” says the select committee report, recommending that the Government discuss the situation with its US counterparts.

So will it go anywhere? Some of the issues are already under review, others are being examined by the Ministry of Justice’s working group on libel. There’s little time left before the election and little indication that a Conservative government will be as supportive of reform. But we may never have another opportunity like this for freeing the press, publishers and academics from the tyranny of the UK’s singular chilling libel laws – and will have a greater impact for press freedom than the current flurry of interest in the sins of News International.

Jo Glanville is editor of Index on Censorship and a member of the Ministry of Justice working party on libel reform

“Straws in the wind” show hope for repeal of seditious libel

The UK parliament edged a step closer to repealing the archaic crimes of seditious libel and criminal defamation yesterday, as the House of Lords debated the government’s Coroners and Justice Bill on its second reading.

Liberal Democrat peer, Lord Anthony Lester QC, indicated his intention to table an amendment to the Bill that would abolish seditious and criminal libel, saying:

It took us 140 years to abolish the crime of blasphemy; I hope that this House will see fit to remove these crimes from our statute book as well. I hope that the government will support the amendments; indeed, there were straws in the wind indicating that they might do so.

This is very encouraging: should peers agree to an amendment, the change would need the tacit support of the government to remain in the Bill.

In March, Dr Evan Harris, the Liberal Democrat MP, tabled similar amendments in the House of Commons (unfortunately never debated due to time constraints). Speaking at a meeting in Holborn yesterday evening, Dr Harris said that he too has heard supportive noises from the Ministry of Justice on this issue. Index on Censorship and English PEN will be lobbying the government to formalise this support, as soon as possible.

For campaigners, the abolition of seditious libel and criminal defamation in the UK would be an invaluable tool in the fight for free expression worldwide. In recent years, both Article 19 and International PEN have produced research on the widespread use of sedition and criminal defamation laws to silence legitimate political protest. Abolition in the UK should reinvigorate campaigns for change elsewhere.

The Coroners and Justice Bill raises several other free expression issues, which peers will debate in committee in June. These include the question of whether convicted criminals should have royalties from their memoirs confiscated, and whether laws that forbid hate speech on the grounds of sexual orientation need an amendment to protect those who might wish to question the morality of homosexual practices.

However, some peers criticised the government’s use of portmanteau bills to legislate on myriad topics. Lord Thomas of Gresford complained that the Bill was a “miscellany of no fewer than 15 discrete and complex topics that have been thrown together.” If the Coroners and Justice Bill succeeds in expanding the space for free speech in the UK, it will be ironic that the vehicle for reform is a method of legislation that many regard as undemocratic.

Robert Sharp is campaigns manager at English PEN