ICE blogs

January 21, 2011

Libel reform?

Filed under: Blogroll, News, ethical space editors blog, Headlines, journalism — news_editor @ 12:49 am

Barry Turner, senior lecturer at the University of Lincoln, argues that while the libel laws need to be repealed, the current Coalition government appears, despite all their rhetoric, reluctant to introduce even meaningful reform

In spite of constant commentary suggesting that we are on the horizon of a new dawn in defamation law, the UK’s libel lawyers show no sign as yet of seeking a career change. Indeed, ever more imaginative uses of our anachronistic and spectacularly unfair libel laws are being employed.

While all but the most radical would agree that we should have some legal protection for our reputations the way the law of libel is heading at present is contrary to our tradition of free expression, contrary to the doctrine that all are equal before the law and a flagrant violation of our civil procedure rules, themselves an earlier attempt at ‘reforming’ the civil law.

It has always been recognised that there is something fundamantally wrong with laws which place the burden of proving innocence on the accused. The law of libel is notorious for this very reason.

In recent days this author has had discussions with both lawyers and defendants who have all spoken of libel actions being used to accommodate agendas other than those these laws were originally designed for. With the rise of PR and reputation management gurus, corporate bodies have become aware of their own image and are ever fiercer in their protection of it.

Last week a multinational pharmaceutical company filed a lawsuit in Paris against the independent French medical journal, Prescrire, for publishing unfavourable reports about their products. Last year, the science reporter Simon Singh in the UK was subjected to this application of the libel laws after writing an article in the Guardian critical of alternative medical practices.

Other cases are pending and corporate bodies in particular see the use of libel laws, or at least the threat of them, as a potent weapon to stifle criticism even where it is in the public interest that such criticism is aired. The language of the new libel lawyers is ‘disparaging products’ or ‘bringing the institution into disrepute’. Actions in libel and threats of them are being used to force web providers and other media to disclose potential whistleblowers so they can be silenced. Sadly observations of this practice are showing an all too often readiness to comply with such demands.

The previous Labour Minister of Justice, Jack Straw, claimed that libel reform was a priority but was unable to demonstrate that commitment due to the intervening election. The current Coalition (Conservative) Minister of Justice, Kenneth Clarke, shows little interest in any reform except in repealing many of the huge raft of often ridiculous laws introduced by New Labour and is more concerned with budgetary matters and court closures than reforming the law itself.

The libel laws in the UK need more than reforming, they need repealing and rebuilding from the bottom up. That new start must recognise the concepts of free speech, vigorous criticism and open scrutiny, which are values for us all, as far outweighing the value of the corporate image and the injured pride of few individuals.

Last week, the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, made a powerful speech in which he outlined the government’s proposals for libel reform. He declared that the proposed Libel Bill would deal with the most controversial elements of the current law and pledged that conditional fee arrangements, forum shopping and astronomical fees for libel lawyers would all be up for reform. These measures have all been pledged before but to date the use of libel as a weapon against free speech and valid criticism has gone from strength to strength.

Political rhetoric is rarely translated into action and we will have to see just how much of this reform is actually introduced. A reform of forum shopping whereby foreigners use our libel laws would not achieve much: a recent study by Sweet and Maxwell has shown this practice to be much rarer than first thought. Abolishing conditional fees, while stopping the obscenely high profits made by lawyers, would also hit those without the means to bring actions and return libel to its status as a rich man’s law.

As for the current state of affairs, let us hope that this recent rise in libel actions and ever more imaginative uses of a law to stem free speech is the last flicker before the defamation candle burns out.

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