Clegg impresses on libel reform

Deputy PM announces a series of measures to curb Britain’s “chilling” libel laws.

It's not the vote-winner the Lib Dems badly need but Nick Clegg's comments on libel reform today are some of the most impressive we've heard from a British politician. In his speech on civil liberties (a full transcript of which can be found here), the Deputy PM promised to provide publishers with a new statutory public-interest defence, clamp down on libel tourism and reform the system of "no win, no fee" litigation, which can make it prohibitively expensive for publications to defend themselves.

Clegg said: "The test of a free press is its capacity to unearth the truth, exposing charlatans and vested interests along the way. It is simply not right when academics and journalists are effectively bullied into silence by the prospect of costly legal battles with wealthy individuals and big businesses."

Britain's libel laws, as the NS has noted before, have become a international embarrassment. So feared are this country's laws that the US Congress last year passed new legislation to counter the threat posed by libel tourists in the UK.

American newspapers including the New York Times, the Boston Globe and the Los Angeles Times had threatened to abandon supplying the 200-odd copies they make available for sale in London because they could no longer risk losing millions of dollars in a libel action that they would never face under US law.

The "no win, no fee" system was created with the honourable aim of providing the poorest with access to justice, yet it has left small publishers unable to defend themselves. Research by Oxford University shows that the cost of fighting a libel action in England is 140 times greater than the European average. Jack Straw's libel reform plan, which would have capped lawyers' success fees at 10 per cent, fell victim to the parliamentary "wash-up".

But Clegg's reforms, which will be included in a draft defamation bill in the spring, are not sufficient. London has become the libel capital of the world, not just because of the sums claimants can win but because it is easier to win a case here than in any comparable democracy. Only English libel law places the burden of proof on the defendant, meaning the odds are stacked against authors and publishers from the start.

The government should shift this burden from the defendant to the plaintiff as a matter of priority. But if Clegg can deliver on his aspiration to turn English libel laws from an "international laughing stock to an international blueprint", we'll have at least one thing to thank the Lib Dems for.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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What type of Brexit did we vote for? 150,000 Conservative members will decide

As Michael Gove launches his leadership bid, what Leave looks like will be decided by Conservative activists.

Why did 17 million people vote to the leave the European Union, and what did they want? That’s the question that will shape the direction of British politics and economics for the next half-century, perhaps longer.

Vote Leave triumphed in part because they fought a campaign that combined ruthless precision about what the European Union would do – the illusory £350m a week that could be clawed back with a Brexit vote, the imagined 75 million Turks who would rock up to Britain in the days after a Remain vote – with calculated ambiguity about what exit would look like.

Now that ambiguity will be clarified – by just 150,000 people.

 That’s part of why the initial Brexit losses on the stock market have been clawed back – there is still some expectation that we may end up with a more diluted version of a Leave vote than the version offered by Vote Leave. Within the Treasury, the expectation is that the initial “Brexit shock” has been pushed back until the last quarter of the year, when the election of a new Conservative leader will give markets an idea of what to expect.  

Michael Gove, who kicked off his surprise bid today, is running as the “full-fat” version offered by Vote Leave: exit from not just the European Union but from the single market, a cash bounty for Britain’s public services, more investment in science and education. Make Britain great again!

Although my reading of the Conservative parliamentary party is that Gove’s chances of getting to the top two are receding, with Andrea Leadsom the likely beneficiary. She, too, will offer something close to the unadulterated version of exit that Gove is running on. That is the version that is making officials in Whitehall and the Bank of England most nervous, as they expect it means exit on World Trade Organisation terms, followed by lengthy and severe recession.

Elsewhere, both Stephen Crabb and Theresa May, who supported a Remain vote, have kicked off their campaigns with a promise that “Brexit means Brexit” in the words of May, while Crabb has conceded that, in his view, the Leave vote means that Britain will have to take more control of its borders as part of any exit deal. May has made retaining Britain’s single market access a priority, Crabb has not.

On the Labour side, John McDonnell has set out his red lines in a Brexit negotiation, and again remaining in the single market is a red line, alongside access to the European Investment Bank, and the maintenance of “social Europe”. But he, too, has stated that Brexit means the “end of free movement”.

My reading – and indeed the reading within McDonnell’s circle – is that it is the loyalists who are likely to emerge victorious in Labour’s power struggle, although it could yet be under a different leader. (Serious figures in that camp are thinking about whether Clive Lewis might be the solution to the party’s woes.) Even if they don’t, the rebels’ alternate is likely either to be drawn from the party’s Brownite tendency or to have that faction acting as its guarantors, making an end to free movement a near-certainty on the Labour side.

Why does that matter? Well, the emerging consensus on Whitehall is that, provided you were willing to sacrifice the bulk of Britain’s financial services to Frankfurt and Paris, there is a deal to be struck in which Britain remains subject to only three of the four freedoms – free movement of goods, services, capital and people – but retains access to the single market. 

That means that what Brexit actually looks like remains a matter of conjecture, a subject of considerable consternation for British officials. For staff at the Bank of England,  who have to make a judgement call in their August inflation report as to what the impact of an out vote will be. The Office of Budget Responsibility expects that it will be heavily led by the Bank. Britain's short-term economic future will be driven not by elected politicians but by polls of the Conservative membership. A tense few months await. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.