March 7, 2013

British authors back libel reform


There always exists a tense relationship between the press and politicians, but post the United Kingdom’s hacking scandal and subsequent Levenson inquiry, relations between the two are surely at their lowest ebb.

As a result, a number of politicians’ desire to get the press under watch-dog control now threatens to derail a libel reform bill that had been debated and worked on for three years.  Before the incidents of the past year, it looked for a moment like the UK’s notoriously draconian libel laws might indeed be changed for the better.

According to Lisa O’Carroll in The Guardian, a group including some of the UK’s most high-profile writers, from Sir Tom Stoppard and Julian Barnes to Salman Rushdie and Stephen Fry, are petitioning the government to proceed with the law’s reform.

“Current British libel laws, the authors argue, have not changed substantially since 1843, have made London the libel capital of the world and are “not just a national disgrace” but an international concern. In 2010 the US president, Barack Obama, introduced laws in America to protect US citizens from British courts.”

Indeed, the UK is an outrageously common place for persons and companies to sue for libel—a popular spot for those that like to juridiction shop for appellant-friendly locales.

Per David Banks, also in The Guardian, the changes that the bill could have wrought were,

corporations would have to show “substantial financial loss” before they could bring an action and if they perform a public function, their action would be struck out. If this clause had been in place, the McLibel trial would probably never have happened;

a statutory public interest defence would replace the Reynolds defence, which has proved very hard to successfully claim;

there would be a privilege defence for peer-reviewed journals, ending the pernicious practice of threatening legitimate academic or scientific publication by use of libel;

complaints about publication online would have to be taken up with the author first, if identifiable, rather than platform providers;

a single publication rule would end the idea that every download of an online article is a new libel; and

there would be limits placed on those not resident in the UK on taking libel action in the courts here – so-called libel tourism.

The bill’s slow development was stymied when, apparently thinking the Levenson reforms were not coming fast enough, a group of peers tacked on sections relating to media oversight. Writes, O’Carroll, “the amendments include proposals for a new arbitration unit to resolve disputes with newspapers and an incentive system that would mean publishers who did not sign up to the new press regulator could face punitive damages and costs in high court libel actions.”

The bill had been supported by all three major parties, until this was attached.

It would be a shame if this bill died, as whistle-blowers and journalists have been silenced innumerable times in the UK because of the legal overreach of these libel laws. Here’s hoping those prominent names wield some influence.




Ariel Bogle is a publicist at Melville House.