Libel law not fit for purpose, says justice minister

Justice minister Lord McNally has told reform campaigners that English libel law is “not fit for purpose”.

McNally said correcting the problems with the current law through the Government’s draft Defamation Bill – due in the spring – would be a point on which he would measure his ministerial career.

His comments came at an event marking the first anniversary of the Libel Reform Campaign – a coalition of three charities seeking wholesale reform of the defamation laws.

McNally said: “The Government values the contribution the Libel Reform Campaign has already made to raising awareness of the need for a fresh look at defamation laws in England and Wales.

“We agree the law needs reforming and have been working on a draft Defamation Bill, which we hope to publish and put out for consultation in March.”

McNally’s comment that libel law is “not fit for purpose” goes further than previous ministerial statements despite the Government having committed itself to reform.

However, sources within the Ministry of Justice warned the Bill was not intended to be a massive and radical reform, but was rather intended to introduce measured and sensible changes.

At the libel reform event, last Thursday, reformers also unveiled preliminary results of two surveys looking at the impact libel laws have on publishing and scientific and medical journals.

The surveys – one of publishers, the other of and medical and science editors – showed that:

  • 32 per cent of editors of medical and scientific publications said their journals had been threatened with libel action
  • 44 per cent of scientific journal editors had asked for changes to papers or articles to protect themselves from a libel action
  • 38 per cent of scientific editors in all subject areas chose not to publish certain articles because of a perceived risk of libel action, for example about controversial subjects or concerning particular people or companies
  • 100 per cent of respondents to the survey of publishers said they had modified content or language of a book before publication to avoid the risks presented by UK libel laws
  • One in three publishers has refused work from authors for fear of libel action
  • Almost 43 per cent of respondent publishers had withdrawn a publication as a result of threatened libel action.

Jonathan Heawood of English PEN, John Kampfner of Index on Censorship and Tracey Brown of Sense About Science, the charities in the Libel Reform Campaign, joined Richard Allan of Facebook and Emily Cleevely of the Publishers Association and hundreds of supporters to mark the anniversary.

Kampfner said the campaign had put free expression at the heart of politics, adding: “The campaign has been a remarkable example of democracy in action.

‘Now the Government must deliver the reform in favour of free speech so many have called for.”

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