Reform Of Libel Laws Will Protect Freedom Of Expression

Jack Straw

(Jack Straw) – READERS OF THE GUARDIAN know that that newspaper has been at the forefront of championing changes to our libel laws. And with good reason. As one of the leading proponents of investigative journalism, its lawyers have frequently appeared in the courtroom, defending its right to publish information which is in the public interest.

Unfortunately, the Guardian and other media outlets have too often found themselves on the losing side of the battle. Our current libel laws, cobbled together over decades of legal practice, have sometimes proven to be a disincentive against investigating and reporting the things that matter to our democracy.

This is an issue that has been growing in importance, and urgency, over the past few years. Most recently, we’ve seen concerns about the number of costly defamation cases against respected scientists, researchers and writers.

These developments have been a matter of great concern to the government, and myself personally, and we’ve already implemented immediate actions to reform the system, such as reducing the success fees lawyers can charge for “no win, no fee” cases from 100% of costs to 10%, a figure which is much fairer and more proportionate.

And in January the Ministry of Justice established the libel working group, including media and legal representatives, free speech campaigners, and members of the scientific and academic communities. Their report, published this week, makes some useful proposals.

Together with the responses we received to our recent consultation on defamation and the internet, and the recent report of the department of culture, media and sport select committee, we will use these recommendations to develop further reforms which will protect freedom of expression while continuing to ensure that individuals who are the subject of defamatory reporting have access to justice.

Today we’ve announced that, if re-elected, we’ll be pushing ahead with action on a number of issues. We want to make changes as speedily as possible, but in some cases this may need legislation. We have therefore signalled our intention to introduce a draft Libel Reform Bill in the next Parliament.

The main areas we are looking at are threefold. Firstly, we’ll be introducing a single publication rule, under which a defamation claim will have to be brought within one year from the date of the original publication. The interests of people who are defamed will be protected by giving the court the power to extend this period where necessary.

This element will specifically tackle the problem of internet publishing, and the way the law currently allows defendants to be taken to court every time allegedly libellous content is accessed online. This causes great uncertainty, as publishers are effectively subject to open-ended liability. Clearly, our current laws are not fit to handle the realities of the 21st century media landscape and internet use – this change will address that.

Secondly, the Bill will include provisions to prevent the growth of so-called “libel tourism”, which some believe has been increasing rapidly in recent years. I’m asking the Civil Procedure Rule to consider tightening the rules where the court’s permission is required to serve defamation cases outside England and Wales. This will help head off inappropriate claims at the earliest stage and stop them from reaching court.

Finally – and perhaps most importantly for the media – we’ll be looking at whether to introduce a statutory defence to protect publications that are in the public interest. A statutory public interest test which is clearly and simply expressed could help ensure that the work done by journalists, scientists and NGOs to investigate and inform the public can continue – while also preserving the right we all have to protect our reputations.

These changes build on the discussions that have taken place over the last two months among the members of the libel working group, all of whom have made a very valuable contribution to the debate.

This is only the start of the reform process. We’ll continue to consult with the media and legal professions, NGOs and the public as we develop our thinking further.

The English legal system is something we should all be proud of. Fair and open court proceedings, access to justice for all, and equality before the law are some of the basic tenets of our democracy, and these need to be valued and protected.

The last thing I want to see is our libel law being used to bring our legal system’s reputation into disrepute. From people bringing their claims in English courts despite there being little or no link to this country, to the high costs of defending a court case discouraging journalists and editors from pursuing and publishing stories the public should know about – these have a chilling effect on freedom of expression and are matters of concern to us all.

At the same time, we also need to ensure that there is not a publishing “free-for-all”, when articles of no public interest and little factual accuracy are produced, causing harm and hurt to those involved. We do need strong, effective libel laws to protect the reputations of those who fall into this category.

The steps the government has announced today will help restore a fair balance between these two needs.

Jack Straw is the Lord Chancellor and secretary of state for justice

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Can We Have A Free Local Press For The General Election?

LAST WEEK I was ‘doing a Julian,’ musing on the possibility that the onset of Spring had been accompanied by a general reluctance by the Echo to publish Spink’s questionable newsletters. But, just two days later, the ‘newspaper’ went to press with another bandwagon piece regarding eight island children being refused places at their secondary school of choice.

Instead of accompanying their friends to Castle View school, the poor youngsters will have to endure the hardship of trekking all the way to Cornelius Vermuyden instead.

Characteristically, Bob Spink, our local MP, vented his anger at the Tory led Essex County Council for marking Furtherwick Park school for closure.

‘Canvey has yet again been betrayed by the council,’ the Echo quoted Spink as saying.

It seems that even the onset of Spring has no effect on Bob.

The next day, Spink actually made it into the Nationals; although not in the way he had intended. Fran Abrams, at the Guardian, wrote an insight piece on children with behavioural problems and chose Bob Hall and Canvey’s Continuum School to illustrate what can be achieved by dedicated people – and the opposition that such schools face from hard-line nimbys and bigots.

She chose Spink to represent the latter.

As if at their master’s command, the Echo decided to re-visit their Continuum School coverage on Thursday. The piece was devoid of any news; but obviously written to gauge public opinion for Bob’s campaign in the wake of the Guardian’s feature.

Despite obtaining resident opinion that concurred with Fran’s article, Sarah Calkin wrote determinedly about the school remaining as some form of community threat to measure those negative attitudes that the Echo had so carefully fostered last year. But her readers remained silent. The only feedback she obtained was from ‘upset, Canvey’ bringing readers’ attention to the fact that, despite all Bob’s bluster, he had achieved nothing.

Spink must have been very disappointed.

Paul Offord, at the Echo, chose midday on Friday to report Wednesday evening’s residents’ meeting regarding Canvey’s Concord pool. Spink was not mentioned, of course, since Bob has distanced himself from this particular campaign and handed it over to the Echo.

Bob does not want to be seen as leader of this protest so close to a general election (when he might be criticised for stoking-up public anger for political ends). Moreover, should the protest fail, he does not want to be personally associated with its downfall.

Why Paul should wait so long to file his report is perhaps explained by this blog’s coverage of Spink’s campaign letter,on Wednesday. Quickly placing it into the public domain forced Spink to bring forward his plans and cut-short public speculation. Early Friday morning, the Echo was forced to announce that Bob was setting-up a new national political organisation: the Independent Save Our Greenbelt party.

This was a scoop for the Echo (as you would expect for anything to do with Bob); but the strange thing is that they, and the Yellow Advertiser, had both been given Bob’s letter hinting at the fact long before I had received a copy.

Neither chose to publish it – or even mention its existence (despite the fact that this was its source’s avowed intention).

So, once again, it falls to a small local blog to reveal the truth about Spink. This time regarding his relationship with the Canvey Island Independent Party.

Neither the Echo, nor it seems, the Yellow Advertiser, deem such information to be in the public interest.

A free local press for the general election?..

I very much doubt it.

… (Echo, 14/03/2010) – Eight join MP in bid to save greenbelt

PM Pledges Action On ‘Super-Injunctions’

(Press Gazette) – JUSTICE SECRETARY JACK STRAW is to examine the use of so-called ‘super injunctions’ following the Trafigura row, the Prime Minister told MPs today.

Gordon Brown said the granting of secret injunctions, which not only banned reporting of a story but also of the existence of the ban itself was an ‘unfortunate area of the law.’

Yesterday The Guardian reported that it had been prevented from reporting a Parliamentary question relating to oil company Trafigura because of an injunction obtained by the firm’s lawyers, Carter Ruck.

Tory MP Peter Bottomley raised the issue at Prime Minister’s question time in the Commons today, saying: ‘No court should grant such an order and I intend to report them to the Law Society for asking for the injunction.’

He called for details of secret or emergency injunctions to be placed in the House of Commons library and Press Gallery and added that any such order should be reviewed the next working day at the Court of Appeal.

Brown said: ‘This is an issue where an injunction has been awarded but it has been awarded in the context where it has to remain secret and people are not told what the outcome is generally.

‘The Justice Secretary has talked to the parties concerned and is looking into this issue.’

He then told Bottomley: ‘I hope that on the basis of what you suggest progress can be made not just in this case but more generally to clear up what is an unfortunate area of the law.’

Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger yesterday hailed a ‘great victory for free speech’ and said lawyers had ‘caved in’ over the order which prevented reporting of a question asked by Labour’s Paul Farrelly.

In a statement yesterday, Carter Ruck said: ‘There has never been any question of Trafigura applying for an injunction that had as its purpose the prevention of publication of any matter arising in Parliament. No such application has ever been made.

‘Nevertheless, as formulated (and as The Guardian apparently accepts) the Order would indeed have prevented The Guardian from reporting on the Parliamentary Question which had been tabled for later this week.’

Guardian Mulls Future

(Reuters) – THE GUARDIAN MEDIA GROUP is considering options for its Guardian newspaper, Observer Sunday newspaper and online publications as it faces the fact it will emerge from recession as a smaller organisation.

In a letter to staff written in response to media reports that the company was mulling closing the Observer, GMG’s chief executive said Guardian News & Media was conducting a strategic review and it was too early to say what the outcome would be.

‘When the economy recovers, so — to a degree — will our advertising revenues. However, due to structural change, these revenues will not be at the levels they were in the past,’ Carolyn McCall wrote in an email seen by Reuters today.

‘This inevitably means we will be a smaller organisation,’ she added. ‘A wide variety of different options, approaches and scenarios is being developed and will be considered.’

She said every aspect of GNM’s publishing strategy and titles would be examined, including the Observer, the world’s oldest Sunday newspaper, which was first published in 1791.

Guardian Media Group, which is owned by the Scott Trust, last Friday reported a pretax loss of £89.8 million for its 2008/09 fiscal year, compared with a profit of £306.4 million the previous year.

GMG’s turnover increased slightly to £637.9 million, including its share of two joint venture companies.

The Scott Trust was created in 1936 to safeguard the Guardian’s journalistic freedom and liberal values. Its stated core purpose is ‘to preserve the financial and editorial independence of the Guardian in perpetuity.’ It does not mention the Observer.

Rival Sunday newspaper the Sunday Times, owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, plans to launch its own dedicated website separate from timesonline.co.uk, a spokeswoman for News Corp’s UK subsidiary News International confirmed today.

The Observer’s circulation was 410,000 in June, slightly up from May, according to Britain’s Audit Bureau of Circulation. The Sunday Times, Britain’s best-selling quality Sunday, also slightly increased its circulation to 1.2 million.

… (Press Gazette, 03/08/2009) – Why closing The Observer is a terrible idea