Government backs away from including public interest defence in Defamation Bill

The Government’s looks set to abandon plans for a new defence of qualified privilege for responsible reporting in the public interest in the final version of its Defamation Bill.

The defence – which would be a boon to journalists – was included in the draft Bill, first published last year and endorsed by a Joint Review Committee last October

But in its response to the committee’s findings yesterday, the government proposes a slightly amended Reynolds defence instead.

If this stance finds its way into the new Defamation statute, journalists will have to continue using – or indeed, not using – the Reynolds defence.

The number of publications defending themselves with Reynolds has almost dried up in recent years. The review committee, which reported last October, described it as ‘unpredictable, inflexible, complex and costly’.

And it recommended: “The Reynolds defence of responsible journalism in the public interest should be replaced with a new statutory defence that makes the law clearer, more accessible and better able to protect the free speech of publishers.”

The government’s back-down has caused concern among libel law campaigners.

Charmian Gooch, director of the free speech pressure group Global Witness: ‘Citizens in this country have a right to expect responsible and serious public interest reporting.

“Currently such reporting is simply not protected. It needs a strong public interest defence. It is deeply disappointing that the government appears to be backing away from this.”

The Libel Reform Campaign also expressed its disappointment that the committee’s recommendation was not heeded.

A spokesman said: “We need a new effective statutory public interest defence. Instead, the Government is only proposing minor changes to an already complex, unwieldy and expensive defence.’

The government has supported the need for a single publication rule for web libels, to reduce libel tourism and introduce a new defence of honest opinion. It also plans to extend qualified privilege to give greater protection for scientific discussion and research following the Simon Singh libel trial

The draft Bill is still big improvement on the UK’s current libel laws, which are among the strictest in the world.

But they fall well short of changes being urged by the Society of Editors, MPs and other pressure groups.

Press Gazette reported last month how time was running out to include the Bill in the next Queen’s Speech.

Cleland Thom is a consultant and trainer in media law

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