12 January 2011

Government vows to reform "laughing stock" libel law

"Free speech is not for sale" - the motto of the Libel Reform Campaign
The U.K.'s coalition government has promised sweeping changes to England's much-criticised libel laws, paying tribute to Index on Censorship's libel reform campaign which has "led the debate on this issue for so long."

In a speech on civil liberties on 7 January in London, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg promised to publish a draft defamation bill in the spring that will crack down on "libel tourism" and provide a new statutory defence for those who speak out in the public interest, report Index and ARTICLE 19. The bill will also seek to clarify the law around the existing defences of fair comment and justification.

"Our aim is to turn English libel laws from an international laughing stock to an international blueprint" for reform, he said.

He also wants large corporations to show they have suffered substantial damage before they sue individuals and non-governmental organisations.

"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."

Index has repeatedly warned that Britain's libel laws expose authors of academic papers to crippling actions. Among recent cases is that of science writer Simon Singh, who was sued by the British Chiropractic Association for questioning the evidence on which it based treatment of asthma.

The draft bill will also try to restrict libel tourism. As it stands, foreign claimants can bring cases against foreign defendants to English courts even if the connection with England is tenuous.

It is a "farce and an international embarrassment" that the U.S. government has legislated to protect its citizens from English libel law, he added.

The bill will also update defamation laws on the Internet to provide greater defence for Internet service providers. Government sources said they were still working on details of how to handle libel online.

ARTICLE 19 points out that Clegg also promised to "end practices of closed and secretive government, giving people the information and freedom they need to hold the government and other institutions to account." One of his first moves will be to extend the scope of the Freedom of Information Act to cover "potentially hundreds more bodies," he said.

Importantly, Clegg thanked the Libel Reform Campaign, an initiative by Index, English PEN and Sense About Science, for its support. Commenting after his speech, Clegg said, "Their tireless work has kept up the pressure on politicians of all parties to reform England's libel laws. I hope they feel they have been rewarded by the coalition government's announcement today."

John Kampfner, chief executive of Index, said, "Nick Clegg has set out an impressively robust agenda to change our defamation laws… The commitments he is making marks a victory for the more than 50,000 people who have backed the Libel Reform Campaign."

Putting free expression issues in perspective.

Sign up to receive IFEX In Context.

Related stories on ifex.org

Government aims to "give people's freedom back" in 2011 11 January 2011
United Kingdom
More from United Kingdom
  • Freedom on the Net 2017: United Kingdom

    The WannaCry attack was one of the first major instances of a cyberattack affecting UK public-facing health service infrastructure

  • Freedom of the Press 2017: United Kingdom

    Parliament passed the Investigatory Powers Act, which codified existing, controversial surveillance practices that could compromise journalists’ ability to keep their sources confidential, and discourage investigative journalism.

  • Freedom of the Press 2016: United Kingdom

    The government introduced a draft Investigatory Powers Bill in November. Although the measure included some provisions to protect journalistic materials from state surveillance, their adequacy remained a matter of debate at year’s end.

At this point, would publish cover: "Home page"
IFEX is a global network of committed organisations working to defend and promote free expression.
Permission is granted for material on this website to be reproduced or republished in whole or in part provided the source member and/or IFEX is cited with a link to the original item.