Opening salvo fired in libel reform battle

By Ian Dunt

The opening salvo in efforts to secure reform of Britain’s libel laws was fired today with a private member’s bill demanding greater defence for freedom of speech.

Private member’s bills rarely turn into law, but with the coalition government including libel reform in its upcoming civil liberties agenda, Lord Lester of Herne Hill’s bill could form a model for how the legislation is framed.

Lord Lester’s two private members’ bills on making the European Human Rights Convention enforceable in British courts became the model for the Human Rights Act (HRA). Activists will be paying careful attention to the libel bill’s suggestions with the hope they may be adopted by the government when it presents its own legislation.

“The time is over-ripe for parliament to replace our patched-up archaic law with one that gives stronger protection to freedom of speech,” Lord Lester said.

“[This bill] creates a framework of principles rather than a rigid and inflexible code, and it seeks a fair balance between reputation and public information on matters of public interest.”

The bill would introduce a statutory defence of responsible publication on a matter of public interest and clarify the defences of justification and fair comment, renaming them as ‘truth’ and ‘honest opinion’.

It would also safeguard the reporting of proceedings in parliament, which became the focus of extensive media interest after a super injunction was imposed on the Guardian concerning the oil company Trafigura. The super-injunction was revealed to have included a parliamentary question, triggering an angry backlash against Carter Ruck, which secured it on behalf of Trafigura, in the Commons.

The bill would also require claimants to show substantial harm, corporate bodies to show financial loss and encourage the speedy settlement of disputes without recourse to costly litigation.

The bill follows a heightened period of interest in libel law after the Trafigura scandal.

Science author Simon Singh recently won a well-publicised battle against the British Chiropractic Association for an article he wrote, also for the Guardian.

His solicitor advocate, Robert Dougans, expressed support for Lord Lester’s bill today.

“Lord Lester’s bill should be welcomed by free speech campaigners. The proposals follow on from the Singh decision in expanding and enhancing the defence of honest opinion,” he said.

“This ought to be good news for all those seeking to engage in hard-hitting debate.

“The most important legacy might simply be putting much of libel law on a statutory basis.”

The defamation bill had its first reading yesterday and is being printed today.

It was drafted for Lord Lester by former parliamentary counsel Stephanie Grundy with the assistance of an advisory group consisting of media law experts and representatives of free speech and scientific organisations.

Labour’s attempts to reform libel failed to reach the statute book at the end of the last parliament after they became victims of the wash-up period.