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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Why Theresa May can't end speculation of an early general election

Both Conservative and Labour MPs regard a contest next year as the solution to their problems. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as a Conservative leadership candidate was to rule out an early general election. After a tumultuous 2015 contest and the EU referendum, her view was that the country required a period of stability (a view shared by voters). Many newly-elected Tory MPs, fearful of a Brexit-inspired Ukip or Liberal Democrat surge, supported her on this condition.

After entering Downing Street, May reaffirmed her stance. “The Prime Minister could not have been clearer,” a senior source told me. “There won’t be an early election.” Maintaining this pledge is an important part of May’s straight-talking image.

But though No.10 has wisely avoided publicly contemplating an election (unlike Gordon Brown), the question refuses to die. The Conservatives have a majority of just 12 - the smallest of any single-party government since 1974 - and, as David Cameron found, legislative defeats almost inevitably follow. May’s vow to lift the ban on new grammar schools looks to many like an unachievable task. Former education secretary Nicky Morgan and former business minister Anna Soubry are among the Tories leading the charge against the measure (which did not feature in the 2015 Conservative manifesto).  

To this problem, an early election appears to be the solution. The Tories retain a substantial opinion poll lead over Labour, the most divided opposition in recent history. An election victory would give May the mandate for new policies that she presently lacks.

“I don’t believe Theresa May wishes to hold an early election which there is evidence that the country doesn’t want and which, given the current state of the Labour Party, might be seen as opportunistic,” Nigel Lawson told today’s Times“If, however, the government were to find that it couldn’t get its legislation through the House of Commons, then a wholly new situation would arise.”

It is not only Conservatives who are keeping the possibility of an early election alive. Many Labour MPs are pleading for one in the belief that it would end Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. An early contest would also pre-empt the boundary changes planned in 2018, which are forecast to cost the party 23 seats.

For Corbyn, the possibility of an election is a vital means of disciplining MPs. Allies also hope that the failed revolt against his leadership, which Labour members blame for the party’s unpopularity, would allow him to remain leader even if defeated.

Unlike her predecessors, May faces the obstacle of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act (under which the next election will be on 7 May 2020). Yet it is not an insurmountable one. The legislation can be suspended with the backing of two-thirds of MPs, or through a vote of no confidence in the government. Alternatively, the act could simply be repealed or amended. Labour and the Liberal Democrats, who have demanded an early election, would struggle to resist May if she called their bluff.

To many, it simply looks like an offer too good to refuse. Which is why, however hard May swats this fly, it will keep coming back. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.