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.