Libel progress at Commons


2:45 pm - December 17th 2008

by Padraig Reidy    


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You may have noticed the announcement earlier this week of a joint inquiry in to libel by Index on Censorship and English PEN. The issue of the unfairness of UK defamation laws has been exercising us for some time, and we’re not the only ones.

Today saw an adjournment debate at the House of Commons on the subject of libel laws, featuring contributions from Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrat and UKIP MPs.

The debate was initiated by Labour MP Denis MacShane, with support from Lib Dem Norman Lamb and Tory Michael Gove, (Gove is, of course, still a working journalist for the Times, and Denis MacShane is a former officer of the National Union of Journalists who regularly writes in the national media.

MacShane expressed his concern over libel tourism, which he described as ‘an international scandal which shames Britain’. He also proposed a ‘small claims court’ system for libel which would limit the amounts of fees totted up by lawyers in defamation cases, saying ‘the object [of defamation proceedings] is to gain correction and an apology, not to create a racket for lawyers’.

Norman Lamb expressed his concern over the extension of defamation laws to the Internet, where it seems possible that even a blogger providing a link to a story could find himself open to accusations of defamation.

Lib Dem Evan Harris sought to expand the debate to broader free expression issues, including the fact that England still has sedition laws — which he saw as providing a background whereby other states could justify their own sedition laws.

Tory MP (and barrister) Edward Garnier sought to defend his legal colleagues, particularly those in certain legal firms he felt had been ‘defamed’ in the session, saying: ‘We [MPs] ought to be big enough to admit that it is our fault the we do nothing [on press issues].

‘[E]ither we should get on with it, or we should stop whingeing and let judges and lawyers do their job.’

Finishing up the meeting, Bridget Prentice from the Ministry of Justice agreed to consider whether reform of the civil law is necessary, and promised a consultation paper on defamation and the Internet in the New Year, and to seek views at the same time on criminal defamation.

So it looks like the wheels may be in motion. The key now must be to a) keep the pressure on, and b) come up with positive suggestions for change. Any thoughts?

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About the author
Padraig Reidy is an occasional contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. He is news editor of Index on Censorship and former deputy editor of New Humanist. His work has also featured in the Guardian, the Independent, Tribune, the Irish Examiner and the Irish Post.
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Civil liberties ,Foreign affairs ,Our democracy ,Westminster

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Reader comments


Thanks for writing this up and covering it. Movement forward is definitely a good thing, and if MoJ is taking it seriously we might get some actual good reform.

Given a lot of the media are fully aware of how stupid the law is (something I became aware of when Major got the NS by going for its distributors), there’s be a lot of support for reform.

I guess the real thing is is to organise people to writing to MPs to support it–there are a lot of lawyers in there, and some may look to keep the archaic system.

I like the idea of the small claims court. It’s most important that the elements of abuse are closed–a writ to a host shuts a website down, distributors get sued, settle out of court and the publication is in trouble, etc.

Thanks for posting, Padraig. It’s my view that this is one of the more important issues bloggers and journalists are going to need to deal with in the near future.

Would there be some merit in forming a kind of cross-blog working group to coordinate responses to MPs and apply pressure in an ongoing way? I know this has been mentioned before, but thought I’d raise it again. I’d be keen to participate in such a group – we need to wrest the initiative back and do something to address this (quite real) fear of writ and libel that seems to have such potential to paralyse at the moment. We can’t operate for long in a climate of fear.

This is good. I need to write about a proposal for our own, LC event on this issue… so if you can keep us up to date on this, that would be excellent. We need to tie our own (bloggers) efforts with what the politicians are discussing and what stage they are at.

4. douglas clark

No you don’t Sunny.

This is shite so it is.

We need to conclude and finish one topic before we move on to another

I’m the first to agree that CIC was boring, But LC took it up as an issue, and we haven’t concluded on it.

Jumping, which is what you suggest we do, from one subject to another, just makes us look, well, like political fleas.

So. whether this is good or not is not the point. The point is that we – yes we – should conclude one idea before we move on to something else.

Still. You’ll get more support than I will. Which will annoy the fuck out of me.

Douglas, ever heard of “multi-tasking”? Index et al are putting the subject on the public radar – either we jump on the bandwagon or miss the bus.

Thanks for the piece.

Padraig, Smithson at PB appears to have heard something about this, completely misinterpreted it and is crying wolf:
http://politicalbetting.com/index.php/archives/2008/12/19/is-labour-about-to-clamp-down-on-the-blogsphere/

That’s creating something more of a scare.
http://linlithgow-libdems.blogspot.com/2008/12/mmmm-mm-mmm-mmmm-mmmmmmmm-mm-mmmmm.html

This is something I care strongly about and think is a serious issue, but it’s much more your field than mine, idiot bloggers crying wolf would damage the cause substantially. Can you make time for a more reasoned article?


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