Whatever happened to libel reform?

The need for changing libel law remains urgent.

Once upon a time there was a misconceived and illiberal libel case. In fact, there were many; but this one stood out. The claim brought against Dr Simon Singh by the now discredited British Chiropractic Association was so repellent on its facts that via the internet and -- towards the end -- the mainstream media, it became the main basis for a libel reform campaign which in turn led to all major political parties committing to reform in their manifestos.

Simon Singh did not win that case outright. Instead, the BCA withdrew the case after he appealed successfully to the Court of Appeal on just a preliminary point. By that stage the case had lasted two years and Simon Singh tells me he was exposed to £250,000 of legal costs. The case was still nowhere near a full trial. And such a waste of time and money is not untypical in libel litigation.

But the fundamental problem with libel is not really the costs: in itself libel litigation is not more or less expensive than any other civil litigation. Nor are the delays exceptional: all High Court litigation plods along at a frustratingly slow pace. The problem is the wrongful use to which libel law is put. In essence, libel law has badly lost its way.

Libel is used (and commercially promoted by claimant lawyers) as a tool of "reputation management". This means that it is deployed so as to get things taken down from websites, or to ensure things are not published in print editions. However, this is a cynical distortion of what libel should be about.

Instead, libel law should be about the vindication of reputations, and not their "management". The clumsy but coercive law of libel should not be a mere PR technique. However, it is routinely used almost as if it provides a property right over the words of others. With one lawyer's letter, content is removed or not published in the first place.

There are two main reasons why libel has ended up in such an unfortunate state. First, there are problems with the tort itself: it is still actionable without the need to show damages, and the claimant effectively has to show nothing other than publication to bring a case. Accordingly, a libel case is very easy to launch -- and thereby threaten to launch.

Second, for decades libel served the useful function of regulating the popular press (whilst maintaining the fiction that the press was not being regulated). Libel litigation was generally a Fleet Street affair, with all the editors and lawyers involved working within a few hundred yards of each other. There were occasional cases where outsiders were caught up in libel -- for example, the McLibel two -- but for the most part, libel prevented tabloid excesses in practice, even if the substantive law was flawed. But those monochrome days have gone, and libel law is not well placed for dealing with internet publications.

There are currently few high profile libel cases, so libel is less news worthy. The Courts have also modified some of the abuses of libel law and practice; for example, it is now less difficult (though still not straightforward) to strike out cases as "abuses of process". But there is only so much the courts can do. There needs to be primary legislation. Things which would be in the public interest to publish are not being published, just because of the law of libel.

Is reform any nearer? Slightly. Over the last year or so, the Ministry of Justice have put together a draft Defamation Bill. It contains many sensible modernizing reforms. The draft Bill has been welcomed by a parliamentary joint committee. But there is still a real risk that the government will not include it in the next Queen's Speech.

So, if you are around London today, do go and join the lobby of parliament for libel reform, from 6pm onwards. And take an interest in the draft Bill, and keep watching the campaign. All the efforts of Simon Singh and many others will be for nothing if, at this late moment, the campaign for libel reform fails.

 

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and a media lawyer. His Jack of Kent blog closely followed the BCA v 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.)

John Moore
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The man who created the fake Tube sign explains why he did it

"We need to consider the fact that fake news isn't always fake news at the source," says John Moore.

"I wrote that at 8 o'clock on the evening and before midday the next day it had been read out in the Houses of Parliament."

John Moore, a 44-year-old doctor from Windsor, is describing the whirlwind process by which his social media response to Wednesday's Westminster attack became national news.

Moore used a Tube-sign generator on the evening after the attack to create a sign on a TfL Service Announcement board that read: "All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you." Within three hours, it had just fifty shares. By the morning, it had accumulated 200. Yet by the afternoon, over 30,000 people had shared Moore's post, which was then read aloud on BBC Radio 4 and called a "wonderful tribute" by prime minister Theresa May, who at the time believed it was a genuine Underground sign. 

"I think you have to be very mindful of how powerful the internet is," says Moore, whose viral post was quickly debunked by social media users and then national newspapers such as the Guardian and the Sun. On Thursday, the online world split into two camps: those spreading the word that the sign was "fake news" and urging people not to share it, and those who said that it didn't matter that it was fake - the sentiment was what was important. 

Moore agrees with the latter camp. "I never claimed it was a real tube sign, I never claimed that at all," he says. "In my opinion the only fake news about that sign is that it has been reported as fake news. It was literally just how I was feeling at the time."

Moore was motivated to create and post the sign when he was struck by the "very British response" to the Westminster attack. "There was no sort of knee-jerk Islamaphobia, there was no dramatisation, it was all pretty much, I thought, very calm reporting," he says. "So my initial thought at the time was just a bit of pride in how London had reacted really." Though he saw other, real Tube signs online, he wanted to create his own in order to create a tribute that specifically epitomised the "very London" response. 

Yet though Moore insists he never claimed the sign was real, his caption on the image - which now has 100,800 shares - is arguably misleading. "Quintessentially British..." Moore wrote on his Facebook post, and agrees now that this was ambiguous. "It was meant to relate to the reaction that I saw in London in that day which I just thought was very calm and measured. What the sign was trying to do was capture the spirit I'd seen, so that's what I was actually talking about."

Not only did Moore not mean to mislead, he is actually shocked that anyone thought the sign was real. 

"I'm reasonably digitally savvy and I was extremely shocked that anyone thought it was real," he says, explaining that he thought everyone would be able to spot a fake after a "You ain't no muslim bruv" sign went viral after the Leytonstone Tube attack in 2015. "I thought this is an internet meme that people know isn't true and it's fine to do because this is a digital thing in a digital world."

Yet despite his intentions, Moore's sign has become the centre of debate about whether "nice" fake news is as problematic as that which was notoriously spread during the 2016 United States Presidential elections. Though Moore can understand this perspective, he ultimately feels as though the sentiment behind the sign makes it acceptable. 

"I use the word fake in inverted commas because I think fake implies the intention to deceive and there wasn't [any]... I think if the sentiment is ok then I think it is ok. I think if you were trying to be divisive and you were trying to stir up controversy or influence people's behaviour then perhaps I wouldn't have chosen that forum but I think when you're only expressing your own emotion, I think it's ok.

"The fact that it became so-called fake news was down to other people's interpretation and not down to the actual intention... So in many interesting ways you can see that fake news doesn't even have to originate from the source of the news."

Though Moore was initially "extremely shocked" at the reponse to his post, he says that on reflection he is "pretty proud". 

"I'm glad that other people, even the powers that be, found it an appropriate phrase to use," he says. "I also think social media is often denigrated as a source of evil and bad things in the world, but on occasion I think it can be used for very positive things. I think the vast majority of people who shared my post and liked my post have actually found the phrase and the sentiment useful to them, so I think we have to give social media a fair judgement at times and respect the fact it can be a source for good."

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.