How the Conservatives are trying to wreck the Defamation Bill


8:23 am - April 12th 2013

by Helen Goodman MP    


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One of key reasons for the introduction of the Defamation Bill was to protect journalists and small publication from being harried by large corporations.

The problem with defamation law has been particularly stark in relation to scientific articles.

We have seen numerous cases – Simon Singh and Ben Goldacre to name just two – where science writers have been sued for libel relating to articles that are patently part of the scientific debate.

To tackle this Labour moved amendments to tackle this problem in the House of Commons. These amendments were sadly defeated by the government.

Happily these amendments were re-tabled when the Bill made its way to the House of Lords and were passed with Cross-bench support.

These amendments will raise the bar for corporations to bring a claim of defamation. This is entirely right because, contrary to what Mitt Romney may have said, corporations are not people.

Too often libel law is used by corporations as a way to suppress negative publicity – this must change.

Unfortunately the battle is yet to be won. Edward Garnier, the former Tory Solicitor General, has now tabled amendments that would remove these amendments from the Bill.

D-Day will be on Tuesday when the Bill returns to the House of Commons to discuss the amendments made by Peers.

Garnier’s amendment must be defeated if this Bill is to do what it was intended to.

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About the author
Helen Goodman is Labour Member of Parliament for Bishop Auckland, and Shadow Minister for Culture, Media and Sport.
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Story Filed Under: Civil liberties ,Law ,Our democracy ,Westminster

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Reader comments


Is it a Conservative thing, or just an Edward Garnier thing? I’ve heard reports that he doesn’t have the support of his party.

I believe Garnier used to be a libel lawyer. Is somebody worried about his supply of easy money getting shut off?

If corporations aren’t “people” then the New York Times has no constitutional right to freedom of speech (making free speech kinda useless). In the UK, we don’t really have any secure constitutional rights at all so it doesn’t really matter whether corporations are people or not.

It would be great if there was a link to the Bill and/or its progress through Parliament:

http://services.parliament.uk/bills/2012-13/defamation.html (I notice the next stage is Ping Pong!)

I suppose these are the offending amendments:

Non-natural persons
(1) This section apples to an action for defamation brought by—

(a) a body corporate;
(b) other non-natural legal persons trading for profit; or (c) trade associations representing organisations trading for profit.

(2) The permission of the court must be obtained in order to bring an action to which this section applies.

(3) The court must strike out an application under subsection (2) unless the body corporate can show that the publication of the words or matters complained of has caused, or is likely to cause, substantial financial loss to the claimant.

(4) Non-natural persons performing a public function do not have an action in defamation in relation to a statement concerning that function.

Nick: If corporations aren’t “people” then the New York Times has no constitutional right to freedom of speech

Conversely, if corporations are “people” presumably they gain the right to vote after having been established for 18 years? One can give corporations the ability to do things necessary for their operation without making them “people”, even if as a legal shortcut you say that a corporation may do X as if it was a person.

5. Matt Wardman

That would appear to give Carte Blanche to all the allegations invented by Eoin Clarke and his friends over the last couple of years.

Why do you think it is a good thing that these cannot be challenged in Court?

Or am I wrong?

Helen, if my memory serves, the provisions tabled in the commons were much broader than those tabled (and accepted in the Lords). It’s not quite correct to say that the Lords provisions under discussion now have already been ‘defeated’ in the commons. And it is important to state this, because what we do not want is Sir Edward claiming that his attempt to gut the Bill is in any way aligned to the prior will of parliament. It is not.

If the will of parliament is anything, it is the recommendations of (Tory) John Whittingdale’s CMS committee, or the recommendations of (Tory) Lord Mawhinney’s scrutiny committee. Their recommendations on corporations are what is in the bill. The clause that Labour tabled in the Lords is already a compromise, which is why their lordships from across the political spectrum voted for its inclusion in the bill. Sir Edward’s attempt to remove it is contrary to that consensus.

Corporations are often treated like people when it comes to free expression and property.

But they are obviously not people in other senses. They cannot vote (except in City of London elections) and they cannot be killed, marry, or be sent to prison, for example.

Should corporations be treated as people for the purposes of libel? I would say no, because ‘reputation’ in libel law is linked to ‘psychological integrity’ and feelings, which companies obviously do not have.

Companies are constituted for financial reasons, so if they do have a reputation it is linked to their ability to make money. Corporations should only be able to sue in libel if they can show financial loss. Many vexatious corporate litigants cannot even do that when they bring libel proceedings. This is the bullying that the modest provisions in the bill seek to discourage.

If a company has actually lost money as a result of an untrue allegation, they would still be able to sue in libel.

Tories are in climb down, YES..


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