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10 March 2011

The challenge of libel reform

A draft Libel Reform Bill is imminent.

By David Allen Green

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.

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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.