US publishers may boycott UK over libel risk

The UK libel laws are now considered so draconian that a number of US newspapers and magazines are considering halting sales in this country.

The publishers of US newspapers including the Boston Globe, The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times have sent a memo to the House of Commons media select committee warning that they are considering stopping the sale of their titles in the UK due to the libel risks.

The memo, quoted in the Sunday Times, states: “Leading US newspapers are actively considering abandoning the supply of the 200-odd copies they make available for sale in London – mainly to Americans who want full details of their local news and sport.

“They do not make profits out of these minimal and casual sales and they can no longer risk losing millions of dollars in a libel action which they would never face under US law.

“Does the UK really want to be seen as the only country in Europe – indeed in the world – where important US papers cannot be obtained in print form?”

The Ministry of Justice in the midst of a consultation about updating the UK libel laws for the internet age.

The consultation, which closes on 16 December, could change the rules which state that every time an article is downloaded it counts as a new publication.

The Ministry of Justice is also under pressure to look at more widespread reform of Britain’s libel reforms and is currently reviewing the Conditional Fee Agreement (CFA) rules.

The UK is seen as one of the best places in the world for libel claimants to sue because the financial penalties to publishers are so great.

It is also a tough place for publisher to defend libel cases because the burden of proof is on them to prove that the words complained about are true.

Press Gazette’s Media Law Conference last year heard that the cost to a publisher of defending a major libel action at trial was now around £2.4m.

This comprises: the libel claimant’s legal costs of £750,000, a 100 per cent success fee under CFA for the claimant’s lawyers of another £750,000, the publisher’s own costs of £500,000 and a further £420,000 to pay the insurance premium which the claimant would have taken to protect themselves against losing.

All this has led to many international claimants seeing the High Court in London, or indeed Belfast, as the best place to pursue their case.

Under current libel law they simply have to prove that their article has been downloaded by a British reader, or that it was in an international edition published in the UK, to sue.

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