Wednesday, 13 January 2010

The Next Step For Libel Reform

I was asked today by a journalist for a quote on UK Justice Minister Jack Straw's proposal for a libel "working group".

I gave this quote:

"One must be concerned that this working group is just a political manoeuvre for Straw to buy time without commitment. Libel reform requires not a working group, but government time and civil service buy-in. The Straw approach, by itself, is likely to be a libel reform fail."

Was that too cynical?

It is in the nature of politicians to attempt to satisfy political demands with as little as possible.

And I cannot see the point of a "working group": it always seems a low-cost gesture to try and close or delay any potential issue.

The announced working group, just like manifesto commitments or Early Day Motion signatures, is simply not enough: these are shallow and initial responses to a deep problem.

In my opinion, a working group, a manifesto commitment, or the signing of an EDM, should be applauded only if it really brings libel reform nearer.

Indeed, such apparent "achievements" can even make any reform more difficult, for politicians may think that such responses are sufficient to quench the thirst for reform.

In fact, reform of English libel law requires substantial Parliamentary intervention; such intervention in turn requires valuable Parliamentary time and equally valuable civil service resources.

That is the desired final result from which we need to work backwards.

Therefore, a libel reform "campaign" is not an end in itself: it is only a good campaign if it ultimately secures libel reform, not in the mere promises of politicians.

The libel reform campaign must thereby reach beyond the next General Election; it must ensure that the next government actually provides time and resource for there to be effective legislative reform.

And that is what we in the UK should be demanding of our politicans as we approach the next General Election.


Banksy said...

Do you support the efforts of English PEN and over this issue?

Stephen Curry said...

Wise words I'm sure - probably a necessary dose of realism. I was at the science policy debate tonight (see for a synopsis) and was pleased to note support from all 3 parties on the need for reform. I remain hopeful - but maybe I'm too easily duped?

teekblog said...

I'd agree that the working party is but a small step towards genuine reform, but the movement for libel reform should be able to support all positive initiatives - provided, as you rightly say, that they aren't taken as achievements in themselves but as small increments on the way to real Parliamentary reform.

John Collins said...

It looks as if Withers LLP have got Parliament's hackles up with threatening libel action against an MP - see: Hansard 13th Jan".

Maybe they'll be called to the bar of the house to have their knuckles rapped?

Should be fun anyhow!

Peter in Dundee said...

I thought the Law Society or some such body is or was looking at the issue and will or has made recommendations for reform. Did I dream this?

I know the House is also crammed full of lawyers, but surely there is a good history of asking outside experts to do things like this?

So therefore (unless I did dream it) this does look like a time wasting way of kicking reform into the long grass.

Anonymous said...

One advantage of a group of this nature, with participants from all shades of opinion, is that government has sought to buffer itself against a one-sided campaign such as that pursued by many who are on the libel reform bandwagon. Personally, I may well share many of your own views on the topic, but policy written in line with the demands of those who stomp around in a permanent state of outrage is likely to become bad law. At the very least, a group like this allows pause to ensure that no compellings interests are simply overlooked.