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.)

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Cambridge Analytica and the digital war in Africa

Across the continent, UK expertise is being deployed online to sway elections and target dissidents.

Cambridge Analytica, the British political consultancy caught up in a huge scandal over its use of Facebook data, has boasted that they ran the successful campaigns of President Uhuru Kenyatta in the 2013 and 2017 Kenyan elections. In a secretly filmed video, Mark Turnbull, a managing director for Cambridge Analytica and sister company SCL Elections, told a Channel 4 News’ undercover investigative reporting team that his firm secretly stage-managed Kenyatta’s hotly contested campaigns.

“We have rebranded the entire party twice, written the manifesto, done research, analysis, messaging. I think we wrote all the speeches and we staged the whole thing – so just about every element of this candidate,” Turnbull said of his firm’s work for Kenyatta’s party.

Cambridge Analytica boasts of manipulating voters’ deepest fears and worries. Last year’s Kenyan election was dogged by vicious online propaganda targeting opposition leader Raila Odinga, with images and films playing on people’s concerns about everything from terrorism to spiralling disease. No-one knows who produced the material. Cambridge Analytica denies involvement with these toxic videos – a claim that is hard to square with the company’s boast that they “staged the whole thing.” 

In any event, Kenyatta came to power in 2013 and won a second and final term last August, defeating Odinga by 1.4 million votes.

The work of this British company is only the tip of the iceberg. Another company, the public relations firm, Bell Pottinger, has apologised for stirring up racial hostility in South Africa on behalf of former President Jacob Zuma’s alleged financiers – the Gupta family. Bell Pottinger has since gone out of business.

Some electoral manipulation has been home grown. During the 2016 South African municipal elections the African National Congress established its own media manipulations operation.

Called the “war room” it was the ANC’s own “black ops” centre. The operation ranged from producing fake posters, apparently on behalf of opposition parties, to establishing 200 fake social media “influencers”. The team launched a news site, The New South African, which claimed to be a “platform for new voices offering a different perspective of South Africa”. The propaganda branded opposition parties as vehicles for the rich and not caring for the poor.

While the ANC denied any involvement, the matter became public when the public relations consultant hired by the party went to court for the non-payment of her bill. Among the court papers was an agreement between the claimant and the ANC general manager, Ignatius Jacobs. According to the email, the war room “will require input from the GM [ANC general manager Jacobs] and Cde Nkadimeng [an ANC linked businessman] on a daily basis. The ANC must appoint a political champion who has access to approval, as this is one of the key objectives of the war room.”

Such home-grown digital dirty wars appear to be the exception, rather than the rule, in the rest of Africa. Most activities are run by foreign firms.

Ethiopia, which is now in a political ferment, has turned to an Israeli software company to attack opponents of the government. A Canadian research group, Citizens Lab, reported that Ethiopian dissidents in the US, UK, and other countries were targeted with emails containing sophisticated commercial spyware posing as Adobe Flash updates and PDF plugins.

Citizens Lab says it identified the spyware as a product known as “PC Surveillance System (PSS)”. This is a described as a “commercial spyware product offered by Cyberbit —  an Israel-based cyber security company— and marketed to intelligence and law enforcement agencies.”

This is not the first time Ethiopia has been accused of turning to foreign companies for its cyber-operations. According to Human Rights Watch, this is at least the third spyware vendor that Ethiopia has used to target dissidents, journalists and activists since 2013.

Much of the early surveillance work was reportedly carried out by the Chinese telecom giant, ZTE. More recently it has turned for more advanced surveillance technology from British, German and Italian companies. “Ethiopia appears to have acquired and used United Kingdom and Germany-based Gamma International’s FinFisher and Italy-based Hacking Team’s Remote Control System,” wrote Human Rights Watch in 2014.

Britain’s international development ministry – DFID – boasts that it not only supports good governance but provides funding to back it up. In 2017 the good governance programme had £20 million at its disposal, with an aim is to “help countries as they carry out political and economic reforms.” Perhaps the government should direct some of this funding to investigate just what British companies are up to in Africa, and the wider developing world.

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. He is the author of Understanding Eritrea and, with Paul Holden, the author of Who Rules South Africa?