The Libel Reform Campaign welcomed the Government’s draft defamation Bill as a “great starting point” to ensure the first overhaul of what they called the “archaic” libel laws.
The group – English PEN, Index on Censorship and Sense About Science – said Parliament needed to go further in key areas.
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But one critic said the Bill should be labelled “sponsored by the media” and added: “The truth is that this Bill tends to favour media organisations whilst not doing enough to protect the defamed.”
The Libel Reform Campaign called in particular for a stronger public interest defence, an end to the ability of corporations to sue for defamation, and greater protection for web-hosts and internet service providers from liability for the words of others.
English PEN director Jonathan Heawood said: “Our libel laws allow big corporations to silence their critics even though they do not ‘suffer’ damage in the same way that a libelled individual does.
“Whilst we’re delighted that the government has delivered a wholesale draft Bill, for the first time in a generation, it’s essential that this opportunity delivers real reform that protects free speech for writers, publishers and the citizen critic.”
Sense About Science managing director Tracey Brown said: “The government has recognised the harmful effects of UK libel laws on science and medicine and proposes introducing a statutory public interest defence. This will need some development.
“As the consultation recognises, there is still work to be done to ensure that we end up with a law that enables us all to focus on the question ‘is it true?’ rather than ‘will they sue?'”
Index on censorship chief executive John Kampfner said: “I know that certain publications will not write about billionaire businessmen because the costs of a single libel action could ruin them.
“The Government’s draft defamation bill is a big step forward towards ending the practice of libel tourism which has led our Courts to silence free speech around the world.
‘But without action to reduce the cost of a libel trial, reform will protect the free speech of some, but costs will silence others.”
Dr Evan Harris of the Libel Reform Campaign: “Those campaigning for libel reform will want to see cross-party recognition that the draft Bill is a welcome step forward, but also that it does not yet reflect the extent of full libel reform that is required to properly protect free expression.”
Since the Libel Reform Campaign was launched 18 months ago, 55,000 people have joined, with over half of all eligible MPs backing its Early Day Motion on reform in the last session of Parliament.
The Campaign said the draft Bill is the first time any government has promised wholesale reform of the libel laws since 1843. However, it has not met with universal acceptance.
Rod Dadak, a partner and head of defamation at law firm Lewis Silkin, said: “Defamation is very complex and a quick fix is not possible.
“The real danger with this Bill is that it raises more questions than it answers.
“Whilst overall the Bill is good, its structure is such that costs to claimants will be increased significantly.
“Parts of the Bill are excellent but much of it is unnecessary or inappropriate.
“As things stand today, defamation laws work pretty well. The beauty of common law is that it allows for developments, which occur organically as judges grapple with different problems and arrive at appropriate solutions.
“The Bill may as well have come with the caption ‘Sponsored by the media’, and understandably so, as media organisations have been suffering with the huge costs of dealing with litigation.
“However, the truth is that this Bill tends to favour media organisations whilst not doing enough to protect the defamed.
“The single publication rule which mirrors United States law does make sense provided that enough safeguards are created so that, burden of costs and proof-delay are not shifted on to the claimant.
“In assessing the Bill it is important to face reality. Juries are extremely expensive and often find themselves out of their depth. Few cases go to trial now so abolishing automatic jury entitlement is a necessary step.”
The Inforrm blog, representing the International Forum for Responsible Media, said: “The draft Bill is cautious and contains few surprises.
“It is not radical or wide-ranging and does not ‘rebalance’ or ‘recast’ the law of libel.
A number of its provisions deal with issues of little practical importance – for example, single publication, ‘libel tourism’ and jury trials.
“The draft Bill does not really address the ‘power imbalances’, which bedevil the law of libel – rich media corporations versus individual claimants and rich individuals and corporations against bloggers and NGOs…”
It adds: “Our initial verdict is ‘mostly harmless’ – although reform of this kind will, inevitably, complicate litigation and thus increase costs in the medium term.
“The consultation, however, raises wide-ranging and important questions which need to be carefully considered by everyone who has an interest in ensuring that the law of libel strikes a proper balance.”
Civil rights group Liberty also welcomed the reforms, saying they “could help stem frivolous or abusive threats of libel and prevent powerful interests coming to Britain to shut down criticism and debate”.
The Law Society said it was vital that “the often competing values of freedom of expression and the right of ordinary people to protect themselves against powerful interests seeking to unfairly besmirch their reputation are both fully considered”.
Shadow justice minister Rob Flello said: “The devil will be in the detail of this Bill and how it will bring libel laws up to date and in line with a growing online media.”