A top media lawyer has advised the government not to alter the "Reynolds" libel defence of responsible journalism by putting it in statute.
Mark Stephens, partner and head of media at Finers Stephens Innocent, gave evidence to the culture, media and sport select committee's inquiry into press standards, privacy and libel yesterday.
The Reynolds defence is a common law argument that journalists can use in libel trials – but they have to prove they acted responsibly and in the public interest. It is developed through judges' decisions.
Justice secretary Jack Straw was asked at an earlier committee session if he had considered putting Reynolds into statute. He said the system seemed to work well enough in its current form.
Stephens said that if Reynolds was used on a statutory basis, where the law has to be passed through parliament, then it would deteriorate as a defence.
"You have to think and analyse what is likely to happen - the defence could be eroded, slowly and surely. In common law it is safe," he told MPs.
The Reynolds defence was established by the Sunday Times in a 1999 libel case against the former Irish prime minister Albert Reynolds. The paper successfully argued that it had a duty to publish the allegations in the story and careful steps were taken to verify it.
Stephens also told the committee that he believed companies and individuals should not be allowed to both sue for libel in the same case, potentially doubling the damages payable.
"I strongly urge the committee to put this forward as one of their recommendations," he said.
Asked by Helen Southworth MP whether damages awarded should be reduced or whether the right for both the company and individual to sue should be removed, Stephens replied: "The right to sue should be removed. That's really what it's all about."
He added: "If someone wishes to sue for libel, they should come out of the veil of the corporation."
Also giving evidence at the committee yesterday was Charmain Gooch, director of campaign group Global Witness. She said the group had never successfully been sued, but had received many serious threats.
She said that it was time consuming and costly for researchers to make sure they satisfied all of the tests needed to claim the Reynolds defence, but she added that it was "crucial" due to the high costs involved with losing a case.
Gooch also urged the committee to create a one-year cut-off point in the limitation period for internet publication.
Under the current system, every time an article is visited online it is seen as being republished. This has caused problems for websites with vast online archives such as The Times.
Gooch said: "People revisit reports to republish it when they are preparing a libel case. We have been under pressure to take names out of our reports to prevent cases."
The culture, media and sport select committee has now finished its series of evidence sessions in the investigation into the legal issues facing the press earlier. A report from the group is expected later this year.