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Media release: Libel reform campaigners respond to Queen’s Speech

May 9th, 2012 | No Comments | Posted by in Legal, Politics

The Libel Reform Campaign announced a “victory” today as the Queen’s Speech confirmed legislation will be introduced in the next 12 months to reform defamation law.

The campaign issued a number of comments from those involved in the campaign, some of which are listed below:

Tracey Brown, managing director, Sense About Science:

We and thousands of others have campaigned to stop the libel laws’ bullying and chilling effects on discussions about health, scientific research, consumer safety, history and human rights. We are really pleased to see the government has moved closer to honouring its promise of a fairer law and protection of free speech in today’s Queen’s Speech. This opens the way to developing a law guided by public interest not powerful interests.

Simon Singh, defendant in British Chiropractic Association v Singh:

I continue to be contacted by journalists, scientists and others who are being silenced by libel threats or libel claims. The reform promised in the Queen’s speech today is a welcome response to the intolerable effects of the current laws. I hope that the government will now move rapidly to bring forward a bill that protects those writing about serious matters in the public interest.

Jo Glanville, editor, Index on Censorship:

We have now have a chance for libel legislation that’s fit for the  21st century. The introduction of the single publication rule and greater protection for internet service providers will help to put an  end to the chilling effect online.

Justine Roberts, co-founder and CEO, Mumsnet:

While the draft Defamation Bill was a very good start, it didn’t go far enough to protect freedom of expression, particularly in the online environment. Websites and hosts of user-generated comment risk becoming tactical targets for those who wish to clamp down on criticism or investigation of their activities.

Philip Campbell PhD, editor-in-chief, Nature:

It is essential to the public trust in science that scientific integrity is upheld and that bad behaviour is brought to light. It is therefore imperative that libel legislation be revised to achieve a better balance of interests between those accused of misconduct and those who should be better able to write about them.

Hardeep Singh, journalist and libel defendant:

The inclusion of the defamation bill in the Queen’s Speech marks a major milestone for The Libel Reform Campaign. It can’t be right that ordinary people risk their livelihoods when getting caught up in costly libel proceedings.

The government has already investigated ways to weed out unmeritorious claims, whereby claimants will have to show serious harm before a case progresses. If passed by Parliament, these types of amendments will not only make our libel laws fairer, but go some way in restoring London’s reputation from being a ‘town called sue’.

Till Sommer, Internet Service Providers Association:

ISPA welcomes the Government’s commitment to libel reform. The current regulatory framework has failed to provide clarity to hosting and Internet service providers and has ultimately has had a chilling effect on freedom of speech online. We hope that Parliament will address the current shortcomings in the upcoming session and we will follow the political process closely to ensure that the reforms strike the best possible compromise between protecting providers, claimants and authors.

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Jo Yeates’ landlord: media responsible for ‘extraordinary tissue of fabrications’

November 2nd, 2011 | No Comments | Posted by in Legal, Newspapers, Press freedom and ethics

Chris Jefferies, who successfully sued eight newspapers for damages after his release. Image: Tim Ireland/PA

Chris Jefferies, the landlord of Joanna Yeates who was arrested on suspicion of her murder but later released, told Radio 4′s Today programme this morning that he was “very disturbed” by the “extraordinary tissue of fabrications” published by the press following his arrest.

Jefferies was appearing on the programme to talk about his work with the Hacked Off campaign to exclude privacy and defamation cases from proposed government reforms to conditional fee agreements (CFAs), otherwise known as “no-win-no-fee” agreements.

After his release Jefferies successfully sued eight newspapers – the Sun, Daily Mirror, Sunday Mirror, Daily Mail, Daily Star, Daily Express, Daily Record, and the Scotsman – for damages. Two of the titles – the Sun and the Daily Mirror – were also successfully prosecuted by attorney general Dominic Grieve for contempt of court.

Jefferies told the today programme that during his time in custody he had been unaware of his treatment at the hands of the press, which had caused Grieve to issue a warning to all news outlets over possible contempt.

The landlord said that the press had had “a field day” with his reputation and said he had “become a household name for all the wrong reasons”.

Arguing against the proposed CFA reforms, Jefferies claimed that there is “absolutely no question that I would not have been able to take the action I did against the newspapers” if no-win-no-fee agreements were restricted. He went on to say that access to justice would be “undoubtedly denied” to victims of libel or privacy intrusion if reform went ahead.

I think there is absolutely no question that I wouldn’t have been able to take the action that I did because at the moment, one is able to take out a conditional fee agreement and that means that the lawyer’s success fees, which are a percentage of the total legal costs of taking the action, will be paid by the other side and one won’t be responsible for those.

Because these cases can be dragged out over considerable periods of time, particularly if they go to court, then legal fees are astronomic. One couldn’t begin to potentially expose oneself to the risk of having to pay tens if not hundreds of thousands of pounds in advance.

Precisely for that reason I felt I had no other course but to take the legitimate action that was recently concluded against the eight newspapers.

Jefferies’ solicitor, Louis Charalambous, said after damages were awarded that the newspapers were paying them “knowing that once the conditional fee agreement rules are changed next year victims of tabloid witch hunts will no longer have the same access to justice.”

Yeates neighbour, Vincent Tabak, was convicted of her murder last week and sentenced to a minimum of 20 years in prison.

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#jpod: Lawyers and free expression campaigners debate libel law

May 12th, 2011 | No Comments | Posted by in Legal, Podcast

Today Journalism.co.uk’s Rachel McAthy attended a Westminster Legal Policy Forum seminar on libel law and the next steps for reform.

Listen below for a round up of the day and hear from just some of the speakers and audience members, including former MP Evan Harris, Professor Gavin Phillipson and blogger at the New Statesman David Allen Green.

You can sign up here to our iTunes podcast feed for future audio.

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Lord Lester ‘not enthusiastic’ about privacy laws

April 27th, 2011 | Comments Off | Posted by in Legal, Press freedom and ethics

Lord Lester today urged the newly-formed joint committee on the draft defamation bill not to try to tackle a privacy law within the legislation.

Giving oral evidence before the committee, where he praised the government’s draft bill, he said he was “not enthusiastic” about privacy law.

The one thing I would say to this committee is that if you want to kill defamation law reform you will start by going into privacy and saying that needs to be tackled in the same bill. Because I promise you the plan to have an actual bill come out next May and be enacted next year will not happen if you get involved in the thickets of privacy at the same time.

In a following discussion on the power to make decisions on a day-to-day basis on what becomes public knowledge, he added that he “strongly believed” in self-regulation.

That is why I continue notwithstanding in the Ministry of Justice’s draft that having regard to adherence to professional codes needs to be written into the responsible journalism defence to emphasise that the judgements are for the editor or reporter, not for the court … Judges are not editors, reporters and are not competent to act in place of editors and reporters.

The law therefore needs to encourage self regulation. The Press Complaints Commission needs to be able to give effective remedies to keep the courts away.

Ultimately I think that a free press is obviously essential to democracy and the judgements have to be made by the profession … you will notice that in all the fuss about injunctions, super injunctions and privacy, that is a fuss which is made very often by newspapers that earn a living by trading in publishing private information to the public and good luck to them, but if you take a newspaper which does serious investigative reporting … if you are a responsible profession and you then take advantage for example of my Reynolds defence you’ll be able to tackle that.

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Jack of Kent: Bercow makes a stand for libel reform

October 4th, 2010 | No Comments | Posted by in Editors' pick, Legal

At the end of last week, news broke that think-tank MigrationWatch had threatened political commentator Sally Bercow with libel action following comments she made on Sky News in August about a Daily Express story on migration.

Her comments reportedly included reference to what she perceived as the oversimplification of arguments made in the article, which included statistics from MigrationWatch, adding that the story was “fairly dangerous propaganda”, based on case documents posted by author Richard Wilson on his blog.

According to a release from the Libel Reform Campaign, Bercow, who is the wife of House of Commons speaker John Bercow, received a letter from MigrationWatch’s chairman Sir Andrew Green’s solicitors demanding an apology and legal costs as a result of her comments.

Yesterday lawyer David Allen Green announced on his ‘Jack of Kent’ blog that he had been instructed to act in Bercow’s defence to any libel action. Discussing the context of the case he said the current state of free expression is “depressing”.

But our ‘banning’ culture in respect of free expression is not inevitable and can be reversed; there is no good reason why the first reaction of so many people to unwelcome statements is to get the law involved, and then there is no good reason for so many police officers, judges, and officials to allow them to do so.

(…) Sally Bercow could have just quietly apologised, perhaps with the pre-prepared humble apology which was attached to the threatening letter. But she chose not to do so. She has chosen instead to make a stand for her right as a political commentator to respond to news stories in the way she did. She wants to show how threats like this to political commentators – and also journalists – support the need for libel reform.

The case has also been highlighted by the Libel Reform Campaign as what they claim is “proof” of the need for defamation law reform. A new defamation bill is already expected to be drafted in 2011 by the government. Jo Glanville, editor of the Index on Censorship added:

MigrationWatch should not be using our libel laws to silence criticism of their approach over immigration. Sally Bercow now faces the same ordeal as Simon Singh with potentially bankrupting costs, years of her life wasted in Court, all for expressing an opinion. It really presses home just how important the coalition’s pledge of a libel reform bill is.

MigrationWatch had no further comment to make at this time.

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The Spectator: Alan Rusbridger backs Lord Lester’s defamation bill

September 20th, 2010 | No Comments | Posted by in Editors' pick, Legal

Writing for the Spectator, Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger gives his views on libel legislation in the UK and its effect on press freedom. Rusbridger gives his backing to Lord Lester’s defamation bill:

Lester is optimistic that the government will stick to its promise in its May coalition agreement to back libel reform. Let’s hope he’s right. We pride ourselves as the country which invented free speech – Milton, Wilkes, Cobbett and the rest. We’ve been in some danger of losing it.

Full article on the Spectator at this link…

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Jamaica’s libel reform proposals highlight issues ignored in England

August 4th, 2010 | No Comments | Posted by in Legal, Politics

The International Forum for Responsible Media blog has a post up on proposed libel law reforms in Jamaica.

As Inforrm points out, the current common law of libel in Jamaica is the same as that in England and Wales, offering an interesting comparison when looking at how their authorities have approached reform over the last three years.

The blog lists the recommendations made in 2007 by a committee assembled by the country’s prime minister to assess its defamation laws, from changes to the limitation period which would match it to English law and the introduction of a defence of ‘triviality’, to guidelines for the assessment of damages. But much like English libel law in recent times, the years have now passed with no actual reform yet to speak of.

A Joint Select Committee was set up to consider this report and has not yet reached any conclusion. The Media Association of Jamaica and the Press Association of Jamaica made joint submissions to this Committee which, in general, supported the recommendations but raised additional points on the capping of damages and a “wire services” defence.

The Small Report is interesting as it shows how another jurisdiction – with similar libel laws to those in England and Wales – has grappled with the problems of reform. It is particularly noteworthy that in Recommendations eight and nine it has directly confronted issues of “remedial reform” which are ignored by the Libel Reform Campaign and by Lord Lester’s Defamation Bill.

See the full post here…

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English PEN director describes ‘careful balancing act’ of libel reform

Jonathan Heawood, director of English PEN, part of a coalition of libel reform campaigners in the UK, has a detailed post on the International Forum for Responsible Media (Inforrm) blog about the NGO and its stance on the public interest defence in libel reform.

He discusses the criticisms the group has faced in relation to its campaign from both sides and the difficulty of finding a balance accepted by everyone.

Nonetheless, both organisations, and our coalition partners at Sense about Science, have been routinely attacked throughout our campaign for libel reform for promoting a ‘defamers’ charter’, that would give the media a licence to print defamatory stories without restraint.

Needless to say, this has never been our intention. As human rights charities, we recognise the need – in the words of Alastair Mullis and Andrew Scott – to ‘strike a fair balance between private reputation and public information.’ Their suggestion that this has never been a ‘motivating factor’ for us seems ungrounded.

I have to report that, when we have attempted to strike this balance too carefully, we have been attacked from the other side for weakening the cause of libel reform. The course of public benefit never has run smooth.

He goes on to outline his hopes for the future government libel bill, discussing the scope of the Reynolds defence and burden of proof for both claimant and defendant.

I would suggest that we begin a new Libel Bill by defining the tort as the publication of inaccurate and damaging material about an identifiable individual or corporate entity. We would then require claimants to show that the publication is inaccurate and damaging. Only if claimants had been able to show this would the court ask respondents to mount a defence, based on one of the three headings of truth, honest opinion or public interest.

See his full post here…

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LIVE: Follow the Defamation Bill debate

July 9th, 2010 | No Comments | Posted by in Events, Legal

The second reading of Lord Lester’s Defamation Bill takes place today with 22 peers debating it in the House of Lords.

The bill proposes significant changes to current libel legislation to address online publishing and could also offer greater protection for journalists reporting on parliamentary proceedings.

Journalism.co.uk is following the action – the reading starts at 10am – and we’ll be adding updates to this blog as they come in. You can also watch a livestream of the session on the UK Parliament website.

Follow the ‘more’ link below for previous entries.

2:15-2:30pm:

Lord Lester closes the reading, responding to individual comments.

He confirms that sites hosting third party comments, such as mumsnet, would be classified as innocent facilitators online and therefore not liable.

He adds that his bill was always aimed at protecting vulnerable parties.

“I am not interested in creating a bill for the media, I am interested in the individual, the critic, the newspaper.

“I am very glad others who are not lawyers took part in the debate, this is too important a subject to be left to just the legal profession.”

In response to the justice minister’s announcement that the government will draw up a draft law, he says he wondered if he was “alive at all or if I am in heaven, because I wasn’t expecting this response”.

“What he has said is extremely encouraging, indicates an open mindness to reform (…) and I’m sure that it’s better for the government to have a draft bill and then a joint committee looking at it across both houses.

“Then hoping we are in good health an actual bill that will start in this house.”

In a final vote the bill was agreed to be given a second reading.

More »

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Lord Lester’s Defamation Bill debate live on parliament website this morning

July 9th, 2010 | 1 Comment | Posted by in Events, Legal

The second reading of Lord Lester’s Defamation Bill, which would introduce sweeping changes to current libel legislation in England and Wales, will take place at 10:00am today.

You can watch the debate live via the UK parliament website – Journalism.co.uk will be reporting what happens.

The bill, which received its first reading in front of parliament on 26 May, could offer greater protection for journalists covering parliamentary proceedings and seeks to update libel legislation in light of online publishing.

The bill proposes to:

  • Introduce a statutory defence of responsible publication on a matter of public interest;
  • Clarify the defences of justification and fair comment, renamed as ‘truth’ and ‘honest opinion’;
  • Respond to the problems of the internet age, including multiple publications and the responsibility of Internet Service Providers and hosters;
  • Protect those reporting on proceedings in parliament and other issues of public concern;
  • Require claimants to show substantial harm, and corporate bodies to show financial loss;
  • Encourage the speedy settlement of disputes without recourse to costly litigation.

“My main concern is with the chilling effect, where NGOs, regional newspapers and other more vulnerable publishers fear that they may get caught up in costly libel procedures. That is the main thing the bill is concerned with, to reduce or try to eliminate an unnecessary chilling effect,” Lord Lester told Journalism.co.uk in June.

Today’s reading, which is expected to last until lunchtime, will be debated by 22 peers, including a speech from Press Complaints Commission chair Baroness Peta Buscombe. A full list of those speaking can be seen on the Government Whips Office website.

The second reading is another step forward in the Libel Reform Campaign, led by Sense About Science, English PEN and Index on Censorship, which calls for extensive changes to existing libel legislation, in particular a reduction in costs for defendants.
Mike Harris, public affairs manager of the Libel Reform Campaign, told Journalism.co.uk:

Lord Lester’s Bill is the first attempt at wholesale reform of our libel laws in 70 years and provides a real opportunity to fundamentally rethink their purpose. The Libel Reform Campaign and our 52,000 supporters have made the case that reform is necessary – and that Parliament needs to take forward legislative changes rather than leaving the law to the subjectivity of judges. We hope that at the second reading debate Peers back Lord Lester’s Bill to open up a conversation about how we rebalance our laws to protect both free expression and reputation.

But some commentators who have been following the campaign’s efforts urge a note of caution about the likely progress of the bill. Blogger Jack of Kent (a.k.a. David Allen Green) told Journalism.co.uk why:

The Lord Lester Bill is good news, but only to an extent. It ranges widely, and so the debate in the Lords can also range widely. It contains some interesting proposals, especially on striking out and the capacity of corporations to sue.  However, the Bill has little chance of making any further progress, unless the government suddenly chooses to devote time and departmental resources in supporting it. The best we can realistically hope for is that a parliamentary committee is formed which can then seek to take the bill forward. Overall, I would put the chances of the Bill being enacted in full or in part by 2011 as under 50:50.

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