Freedom of expression groups demand public inquiry on UK libel law

Two of the UK’s leading freedom of expression organisations are launching a public inquiry into libel law.

Index on Censorship and English PEN hope that their joint inquiry will provide a ‘momentum for change’to the current laws which they say are stifling investigative journalism and free expression.

The inquiry will invite submissions from publishers, writers, editors, journalists and lawyers, and also hold round-table discussions. A conference is planned for next spring.

Jonathan Heawood, director of English PEN, told Press Gazette that journalists needed confidence they could make statements in print which they believed to be true and in the public interest.

‘We don’t want to be scared of making those statements because a really wealthy individual or corporation can simply slap a writ on you,’he said.

The inquiry has been motivated in part by the United Nations Human Rights Committee, which in August warned that that English libel law discouraged ‘critical media reporting on matters of serious public interest.”

‘The UN is saying that this is a problem to Britain’s free speech record – it is actually a human rights issue,’said Heawood.

However, the joint inquiry is not looking to create a ‘free for all’legal system.

‘We do recognise the need to protect people’s reputations in law”, said Heawood. ‘[It is about] rebalancing the law to make it a bit fairer for journalists.”

Human rights lawyer Sir Geoffrey Bindman is backing the review.

He said: “There is a difficult balance to be struck between freedom of expression and the protection of the innocent from damaging falsehoods and invasion of legitimate privacy. In Britain, the pendulum has swung too far towards censorship.”

The inquiry coincides with the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport launching its own investigation on the issue of libel law.

Denis MacShane, Labour MP for Rotherham, has also secured an adjournment debate on the operation of libel laws, to be held tomorrow at 9.30am in Westminster Hall.

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