Clegg: Time to end libel bullying of journalists

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg’s speech today on civil liberties: Full text of section on information/freedom of speech

The third and final strand of our civil liberties agenda is about openness, about scrutiny.

Free citizens must be able to hold big institutions and powerful individuals to account.

And not only the Government. There are a whole range of organisations who, for example, benefit from public money and whose activities have a profound impact on the public good, yet who cannot be properly scrutinized.

Citizens must know what goes on in these institutions. And they must be at liberty to speak out about the things they discover.

It is a modern right to information combined with traditional freedom of expression.

Recent years have seen some progress on transparency. Most notably through the introduction of the Freedom of Information Act.

But that progress has stalled. The Freedom of Information Act was a good start, but it was only a start. Exceptions remain far too common. And the available information is too often placed behind tedious bureaucratic hurdles.

The previous Labour Government knew this but chose to respond to repeated calls for the extension of freedom of information by kicking the issue into the long grass.

We still live in a society where important information is hoarded by the few. And, as we know, information is knowledge, and knowledge is power.

And yet, where information is available, people use it in innovative and empowering ways.

They use it to keep tabs on Government. Last Summer the Treasury began publishing what’s called the COINS database, detailing public services expenditure.

The Open Knowledge Foundation has now converted that information into an easy-to-use website that makes it possible for people to see how much is spent, where, on what, and how that is changing over time.

There are extremely impressive examples of people using public information to help their businesses. Of people using information to scrutinize public services too; something which drives up standards.

And none of this should come as a surprise. Because we live in an information age. But what is surprising is the barriers that remain.

So the Government is going to transform the access citizens have to the information we believe is their right.

Francis Maude has been doing an excellent job on this. He has imposed stringent new transparency rules on Whitehall Departments, ensuring they publish, for example, much more data on the money they spend and the private companies awarded government contracts.

Working with Ed Davey, Francis is also developing plans for a new Public Data Corporation.

It will bring existing government bodies together into one organisation, responsible for disseminating a wealth of data.

Businesses, social enterprises and individuals will find it much easier to get hold of the information they need.

As well as opening up Government, we want to go further. We believe that if an organisation’s behaviour and decisions have clear consequences for the public good, people must be able to see right into the heart of them.

So I can also announce that we are extending the scope of the Freedom of Information Act to cover potentially hundreds more bodies; including UCAS, the Association of Chief Police Officers, the Financial Ombudsman Service and many more.

As part of that, we are ending the anomaly that exempts organisations owned by more than one public authority.

And, as we shake up FOI, we are also getting rid of the 30 year rule. Let’s not forget that the previous Government commissioned a review of this back in 2007 – the Dacre Review – but then characteristically dragged their feet. So we will finish the job.

Where sensitive Government records can currently be kept secret for 30 years, we will cut that back by a decade.

Surely it can only strengthen our democracy if we reduce the time people have to wait in order to find out the full truth about the governments they have lived under, and the events they have lived through.

We’ll continue to look at how freedom of information is being implemented to ensure the public interest is put first. And to guarantee this process is itself transparent, we will use post-legislative scrutiny, asking the Justice Select Committee to carry out the work.

Of course, governments do have a duty to protect some kinds of information, in everyone’s wider interests. It’s obvious that the benefits of transparency have to be balanced against important objectives, like national security and crime prevention. And that governments must be very respectful in handling personal information – that’s why we felt so strongly about getting rid of the National Database.

But our starting point is always maximising transparency in the public interest – moving from a closed society to an open society.

Beyond providing greater access to information, we also need to make sure that, where people discover injustice and bad practice, they can speak out against it too.

That is why the Government is changing the law to restore rights to non-violent protest. And we are taking other big steps to enhance freedom of expression.

In opposition my party made clear that we wanted to see English libel laws reformed.

Almost exactly a year ago I made that case in a speech to the Royal Society. I argued that English libel laws are having a chilling effect on scientific debate and investigative journalism.

Of course, individual citizens must be able to protect their reputations from false and damaging claims; and we can’t allow companies to be the victim of damaging, untrue and malicious statements.

But, equally, we want public-spirited academics and journalists to be fearless in publishing legitimate research. Not least when it relates to medical care or public safety.

The test of a free press is its capacity to unearth the truth, exposing charlatans and vested interests along the way.

It is simply not right when academics and journalists are effectively bullied into silence by the prospect of costly legal battles with wealthy individuals and big businesses.

Nor should foreign claimants be able to exploit these laws, bringing cases against foreign defendants here to our courts – even if the connection with England is tenuous.

It is a farce – and an international embarrassment – that the American Congress has felt it necessary to legislate to protect their citizens from our libel laws.

This Government wants to restore our international reputation for free speech.

We will be publishing a draft defamation bill in the Spring. We intend to provide a new statutory defence for those speaking out in the public interest, whether they be big broadcasters or the humble blogger. And we intend to clarify the law around the existing defences of fair comment, and justification.

We believe claimants should not be able to threaten claims on what are essentially trivial grounds. We are going to tackle libel tourism. And we’re going to look at how the law can be updated to better reflect the realities of the internet.

Separately, we are also going to address the high costs of defamation proceedings. As part of that we have published a consultation paper on proposals by Lord Justice Jackson to reform civil litigation funding – and in particular no win no fee arrangements – to make costs more proportionate, more fair.

Our aim is to turn English libel laws from an international laughing stock to an international blueprint.

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