The challenge of libel reform

A draft Libel Reform Bill is imminent.

The government is poised to publish a draft Defamation Reform Bill. It may even be next week. There will then be discussion and consultation, and one hopes it will be the basis of a formal bill to be placed before parliament in the next session.

In a clever move, the Libel Reform Campaign, of which I am a supporter, today publishes an important pamphlet, "What should a defamation bill contain?" (pdf here) By publishing this pamphlet, the campaign is ensuring that there is an independent basis for assessing the content of the draft bill, rather than leaving the immediate assessments of its validity in the hands of Ministry of Justice spin. This pamphlet should be read by anyone with an interest in media law and policy.

Any libel reform will have to meet certain challenges. There is the risk that weakening libel law will allow the tabloids to trash even more the reputations of private individuals caught up in news stories. There is also the need for libel law to be reframed so as to deal with internet publication: most of defamation law was developed when publication and broadcasting were in the hands of a very few individuals.

But the biggest challenge is to ensure that libel law can no longer be used to inhibit the free discussion of matters of public interest, such as the efficacy of medicines and treatments, the behaviour of police officers and other state officials, and the conduct of powerful corporations. The huge support behind the science writer Simon Singh in his two-year battle to defeat a misconceived and illiberal libel claim brought by the now discredited British Chiropractic Association was primarily because of a widespread concern that libel law was being used so as to render certain public debates inefficient. This libel reform movement was not strictly in favour of the "freedom of the press" -- many of those involved in the campaign were as distrustful of mainstream media as they are of libel claimant lawyers -- but instead they sought the freedom of individuals to obtain reliable information on issues of public concern.

Libel reform may still not happen. A draft bill is no guarantee of actual legislation. The Libel Reform Campaign has worked hard for over a year to nudge the government into publishing the draft bill. They are to be congratulated for getting possible reform this far. However, more general participation in the debate following publication of the draft bill will help determine what will happen next. The need for libel reform has not gone away, and the campaign for libel reform needs active and engaged support now more than ever.

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and a practising media lawyer. His "Jack of Kent" blog became well known for its coverage of the Simon Singh case.

 

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and author of the Jack of Kent blog.

His legal journalism has included popularising the Simon Singh libel case and discrediting the Julian Assange myths about his extradition case.  His uncovering of the Nightjack email hack by the Times was described as "masterly analysis" by Lord Justice Leveson.

David is also a solicitor and was successful in the "Twitterjoketrial" appeal at the High Court.

(Nothing on this blog constitutes legal advice.)

ELLIE FOREMAN-PECK FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Craig Oliver, Cameron's attack dog, finally bites

A new book reveals the spiteful after life of Downing Street's unlikely spin doctor.

It must be hard being a spin doctor: always in the shadows but always on-message. The murky control that the role requires might explain why David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has rushed out his political memoirs so soon after his boss left Downing Street. Now that he has been freed from the shackles of power, Oliver has chosen to expose the bitterness that lingers among those on the losing side in the EU referendum.

The book, which is aptly titled Unleashing Demons, made headlines with its revelation that Cameron felt “badly let down” by Theresa May during the campaign, and that some in the Remain camp regarded the then home secretary as an “enemy agent”. It makes for gripping reading – yet seems uncharacteristically provocative in style for a man who eschewed the sweary spin doctor stereotype, instead advising Cameron to “be Zen” while Tory civil war raged during the Brexit campaign.

It may be not only politicians who find the book a tough read. Oliver’s visceral account of his side’s defeat on 24 June includes a description of how he staggered in a daze down Whitehall until he retched “harder than I have done in my life. Nothing comes up. I retch again – so hard, it feels as if I’ll turn inside out.”

It’s easy to see why losing hit Oliver – who was knighted in Cameron’s resignation honours list – so hard. Arguably, this was the first time the 47-year-old father-of-three had ever failed at anything. The son of a former police chief constable, he grew up in Scotland, went to a state school and studied English at St Andrews University. He then became a broadcast journalist, holding senior posts at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as No 10’s communications director in January 2011 because of unceasing references in the press to his alleged involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, Oliver was not the obvious replacement. But he was seen as a scandal-free BBC pen-pusher who exuded calm authority, and that won him the job. The Cameron administration, tainted by its association with the Murdoch media empire, needed somebody uncontroversial who could blend into the background.

It wasn’t just Oliver’s relative blandness that recommended him. At the BBC, he had made his name revamping the corporation’s flagship News at Ten by identifying the news angles that would resonate with Middle England. The Conservatives then put this skill to very good use during their 2015 election campaign. His broadcast expertise also qualified him to sharpen up the then prime minister’s image.

Oliver’s own sense of style, however, was widely ridiculed when he showed up for his first week at Downing Street looking every inch the metropolitan media male with a trendy man bag and expensive Beats by Dre headphones, iPad in hand.

His apparent lack of political affiliation caused a stir at Westminster. Political hacks were perplexed by his anti-spin attitude. His style was the antithesis of the attack-dog mode popularised by Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride in the New Labour years. As Robert Peston told the Daily Mail: “Despite working closely with Oliver for three years, I had no clue about his politics or that he was interested in politics.” Five years on, critics still cast aspersions and question his commitment to the Conservative cause.

Oliver survived despite early wobbles. The most sinister of these was the allegation that in 2012 he tried to prevent the Daily Telegraph publishing a story about expenses claimed by the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, using her links to the Leveson inquiry as leverage – an accusation that Downing Street denied. Nevertheless, he became indispensable to Cameron, one of a handful of trusted advisers always at the prime minister’s side.

Newspapers grumbled about Oliver’s preference for broadcast and social media over print. “He’s made it clear he [Oliver] doesn’t give a s*** about us, so I don’t really give a s*** about him,” a veteran correspondent from a national newspaper told Politico.

Yet that approach was why he was hired. There was the occasional gaffe, including the clumsy shot of a stern-looking Cameron, apparently on the phone to President Obama discussing Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which was widely mocked on Twitter. But overall, reducing Downing Street’s dependence on print media worked: Scotland voted against independence in 2014 and the Tories won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Then came Brexit, a blow to the whole Cameroon inner circle. In his rush to set the record straight and defend Cameron’s legacy – as well as his own – Oliver has finally broken free of the toned-down, straight-guy persona he perfected in power. His memoir is spiteful and melodramatic, like something straight from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Perhaps, with this vengeful encore to his mild political career, the unlikely spin doctor has finally fulfilled his potential. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories