Stormont failure to implement Defamation Act could undermine Northern Ireland editions of UK nationals


National newspapers might be forced to withdraw from Northern Ireland because of the Stormont Government's apparent refusal to act to implement the Defamation Act 2013 in the province, it has been claimed.
This is because they could find themselves constantly being sued for libel in Belfast, where the protections for freedom of expression given in the new Act will not apply.
The warning has come from Paul Connolly, group managing editor of Independent News & Media (NI), which publishes the Belfast Telegraph, Sunday Life and the Community Telegraph series.
He was supported by former Sunday Times journalist Dr Colm Murphy, head of the University of Ulster's school of media, who said another effect of the Stormont Government's refusal to enact the legislation would be that foreign internet companies would see the decision as a message saying: "Just don't come here."
Connolly said some politicians in the Province were in favour of tightening Northern Ireland's already discredited common law system of libel laws, and were proudly championing Belfast as the UK's next libel tourism destination".
He added: "Nationals would lose the protection of the UK Act and may therefore constantly find themselves being sued in Belfast.
"In a nutshell, what is the point of them signing up to the Leveson 'stick' when the defamation 'carrot' will be missing in Belfast?
"Will they have to edit their editions separately for Northern Ireland law - or will they withdraw from the province altogether?"
Dr Murphy told the Belfast Newsletter that Stormont's veto of the Defamation Act could make national newspaper publishers decide that selling in Northern Ireland was "not worth the risk".
The province's politicians appeared to be unaware of the economic impact of their decision, despite their insistence that that the economy was their "number one priority", He told the News Letter, adding: "If you make it easier to sue in Northern Ireland than it is in the rest of the UK, then digital media companies may not come here."
Dr Murphy said most internet-based companies wanted social media as part of their businesses but the "big danger" was that under current libel laws the website, seen in law as the publisher, could be held liable for defamatory comments posted by others.
"Anything that indicates the risk factor is greater in Northern Ireland than in the rest of the UK basically says to these companies: Just don't come here; go to the rest of the UK or the Republic or some other place because you're safer there," he told the newspaper.
It is understood that both the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein are opposed to introducing the new defamation law in the Province.
But Ulster Unionist Party leader Mike Nesbitt has put forward a Private Member's Bill which, if passed, would bring the reforms into effect there.
The Belfast Telegraph has reported that the failure to introduce the new legislation came after Ulster Finance Minister Sammy Wilson's department missed a legislative deadline in Westminster.
It said a paper on the issue from Wilson's Department of Finance and Personnel (DFP) was withdrawn without ever having been discussed - and that the department has since consistently refused to offer any explanation as to why.



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