Libel, privacy, the ‘chilling effect’ and NGOs

In its last evidence session for its inquiry into press standards, privacy and libel, the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport committee today heard from not-for-profit campaign organisation Global Witness’ co-founder Charmian Gooch and Mark Stephens, a lawyer from Finers Stephens Innocent, who has represented non-profit organisations previously.

Most significant were Gooch’s comments on the impact of UK libel and privacy laws, high legal costs and conditional fee arrangements (CFAs) on media organisations compared with not-for-profit organisations.

As journalistic resources, in particular the investigative units of news organisations, are cut back, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are increasingly filling that reporting space, said Gooch.

They must work under the same legislation as for-profit organisations, but have very different interests at heart, she added.

“This is long-term work, often years of work, attacking and trying to change vested interest. It’s not just the publication of a damning and very good article; it’s about trying to change behaviour. That can cause the loss of millions of pounds for a company or individual. That means these individuals might respond in a very different way to non-media organsiations than they would do to media organisations,” explained Gooch.

She said all researchers/reporters at Global Witness were trained in defamation and libel, and a Reynolds defence is considered at all stages of research and every point of publication.

Yet Stephens said he was yet to see an NGO that, despite having a good Reynolds defence, would win at trial with it.

“The problem is the cost of fighting it,” he said – around £100-200,000 or the equivalent of two researchers for an NGO.

High level public interest stories are denuded by high costs, added Stephens, who said his firm had NGOs coming through its doors concerned that they would be sued.

The cost of fighting on a Reynolds defence in the UK is ‘out of kilter’ with the rest of Europe, added Gooch.

However, Stephens said, it is not necessary to put Reynolds into statute:

“What wil happen is that the claimant’s lawyers at the libel bar will attempt to erode that defence by chopping at it and eroding it slowly but surely. That’s what I’m concerned about. If it is left in the common law, as it is at the moment, the judiciary have the option to resist that erosion,” he said.

Libel tourism was also described by the representatives as a threat to the press freedom of NGOs.

“Claimants who have an overseas domicile should be required to put a significant cash deposit down or the chances of doing justice are very slim,” added Gooch.

“For governments, that are serious about and claim they want to make poverty history, not to tackle this massive abuse and facilitate corruption is a long-term problem.”

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