I really thought it was a done deal and that the rest would be simply rubber stamping, but it now appears that UK libel reform is at risk. The quick summary is this … the Defamation Bill was amended in the House of Lords to include proposals from the Leveson Report, and because the UK government do not like this addition, they are considering completely dropping the ball, thus killing off libel reform completely.
…it is so infuriating to see the political game surrounding Leveson this week, and how it has brought the defamation bill limping to the final stage of its passage through the Lords dragging a last-minute“Leveson clause” shackled to its ankles. The clause is a political tactic to get a press regulation bill. It was put down at the last minute by Lord Puttnam and pushed to a vote by the opposition benches. Yes it was “by the back door”, they retorted to critics, because they were frustrated about getting a Leveson bill by the front door. So press regulation has hijacked the nearest passing parliamentary vehicle. The government is unlikely to accept this, which means the defamation bill is now under threat of being dropped. This is a gamble the amendment’s movers were prepared to take.
It matters, it really does …
The provisions in the defamation bill would roll back centuries of unfair and chillingly expensive libel law, much of which derives from a time when gentlemen were being encouraged to pursue their costly reputations in the courts rather than with pistols. We would see an end to the “multiple publication rule” which in the age of online publishing has led to the ludicrous situation where every download of an article can be counted as a new publication. The new law would inhibit libel tourism, where wealthy oligarchs and autocrats have used punitive judgments in our courts to silence critical writers in their own countries.
Of vital importance, it would bring in a public interest defence. Everybody, defendants and claimants, would be in a much clearer position about their rights and protections, and this means disputes could be resolved more quickly and cheaply.
Having been personally sued myself for libel to the tune of $3 Million by a bunch of religious lunatics, I am well aware of how bad libel laws can be abused by such loons to gag valid criticism, we need this law to be pushed through and not dropped.
For every month that it is delayed, we add another month like this one, when a doctor won’t write about a dangerous treatment, a book about scientology is published all over the world but not here, and researchers in a London university receive a threat of legal action for criticising a misleading product.
Libel cases are so often described as a game of high-stakes poker, where you rack up years of costs on an unpredictable outcome. Thousands of writers, scientists, politicians have fought hard to create this historic opportunity to bring an urgently needed end to the dangerous libel chill we impose on the world. It is a rare victory for citizen activism and parliamentary deliberation. A good law could now replace a bad one. We can’t afford to shackle it to months of debate about another area of law and lose it in a political game.
The Leveson clause needs to be pulled out and handled as a separate, but important issue, so that the libel reform can be completed.
Action for UK folks
Write to your MP and tell them it’s vital these two very different issues should be dealt with separately.