Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Engaging With Libel Reform

The formal campaign was launched today for fundamental reform of English libel law.

England's libel law is currently a public danger and a public disgrace.

It is a public danger because there are debates about a range of important matters - about public health and public safety, about the financing of terrorism and the soundness of banks, about the conduct of powerful international corporations and the conduct of identifiable public officials, especially police officers - which are not taking place or are distorted because of libel chill.

And it is a public disgrace, rightly earning international derision and hostility. England may become the only Western country where one cannot buy editions of US papers; and media companies in many countries are reported to be contemplating simply pulling English language web editions.

There is something very wrong with English libel law; and the campaign launched today is a serious, highly-practical, and determined movement for change.

If the campaign is successful, there can be legislative reform in the new Parliament following the next General Election (probably in May or June 2010); if not in the first session (2010-11), then in the second (2011-12).

To ensure the best possible Defamation Act 2011 or 2012, it is important not just for you to support this campaign today or tomorrow, but for you to engage with it on an ongoing basis.

It will be a legal reform process which you can participate in.

If you are a UK voter, you should demand of the candidates in your parliamentary constituency that they address libel reform as an issue.

But even now, before the election is called, you should demand of your sitting MP that they read the fine report on libel reform by Index on Censorship and English PEN. The details of your MP and how to contact them are here.

And after the election the hard work begins.

Legislative reform is not easy.

There has to be an exercise of identifying the best proposals to deal with the many current libel abuses.

And there will be a further painstaking law-making process - undertaken mainly, but not exclusively, by civil servants, lawyers, and politicians - of ensuring that the most appropriate legislation is then passed.

All this will be in the full glare of the internet, and that is an opportunity for you to engage - to monitor and influence.

This Blog will follow and detail this reform process, just it has done with various legal cases; and there will be many other Blogs, as well as the Libel Reform campaign website.

The government department responsible for any new legislation (probably the Ministry of Justice) will also have a formal webpage on the progress of any new legislation.

And once the legislation is proposed, the there will be a special site on the parliamentary website; it may well be that the standing committee debates will also be televised and streamed on the internet, allowing further public involvement.

Your views and concerns can be directly communicated to all the law-makers for them to consider and respond.

There can be a wiki element to this particular legislative process.

With our ongoing and informed scrutiny there is a greater likelihood that any new legislation will prevent important public debates from being undermined by libel chill.

In my view, this will be an exciting process for us all to follow on the internet, via both good official sources and the Blogosphere.

So please do support and then engage fully with the Libel Reform campaign: not just for now, but for as long as it takes for the law to be properly changed.

Thank you.


teekblog said...

Excellent post - here's hoping that the emerging libel reform movement brings about the necessary changes to our unbalanced and illiberal libel laws.

Will be in Parliament in a while to attend launch of National Petition to reform libel laws - you too I take it?!

middleclassmayhem said...

Sly and Reggie up behind the Libel Reform campaign.
First track to support the campaign has working title
'Let Simon Sing'.
Do let us know when you need a bit of street dub agitatin' on this one.

Obiter said...

Might the best reform of all be to simply abolish defamation actions?

The vast majority of the population could not afford to sue for defamation no matter what was said or published about them. There is no legal aid for such actions and none is likely to ever be made available. In legal theory I might have a right to sue but in practice that right is nugatory.

An alternative to abolition might be to allow actions in only strictly limited circumstances and to make legal aid available.

Anonymous said...

The vast majority of the population is perfectly able to sue for defamation, (assuming a good case) because of the availability of no win / no fee representation.

In my opinion, libel law is not the main problem. Certainly it is niche, esoteric and could do with being clarified, but it nonetheless performs a hugely valuable function: free speech must be balanced against a right to reputation and a right not to have your life screwed over by sloppy or malicious journalism. Of course the press prioritises free speech over everything else - but the press have a commercial interest in so doing.

The real problem is the proliferation of badly behaved firms of solicitors who are able to bludgeon the poorly advised into unnecessary capitulation through idle, unethical threats without substance. That is where legislation needs to be directed.