Yesterday was a black day for British journalism, when the BBC, perhaps through fear of expense, or perhaps simply because of the uncertainty and lack of backbone that has plagued the organisation for years now, conceded in a libel case brought by oil traders Trafigura.
This was a matter of the utmost public interest. The BBC should have held its ground and in a court of law a clear vindication of Trafigura or otherwise should have been made. It’s a terrifying prospect that even the nation’s biggest broadcaster can’t face up to big business in our libel courts such are the costs involved.
Trafigura and its solicitors Carter-Ruck have now become synonymous with attempts to stifle free expression in the UK. First it gagged newspapers who attempted to report on waste dumping in Côte d’Ivoire with an injunction. Then it attempted to gag Parliament itself over the reporting of a question on the matter by Labour MP Paul Farrelly. Now, acting with confidence of its advantage as a claimant in England’s rotten libel courts, it has forced the national broadcaster to apologise, rather than face a potential £3m court case.
Libel laws are, most would agree, necessary. People should have a right to defend themselves from outrageous and injurious accusations. But this is quite different from corporations protecting themselves from investigation of their practices and the consequences of their practices.
Through the libel law and the ad hoc privacy law emerging from Mr Justice Eady’s courts, foreign companies, like Trafigura and Kaupthing, the Icelandic bank, can scare off British reporters, and in turn deprive British people of information.
This state of affairs cannot continue, which is why Index on Censorship, English PEN and Sense About Science, has formed the Libel Reform Campaign, offering 10 simple recommendations to make libel laws fairer for all – claimants and defendants. A petition launched last week at libelreform.org has already attracted thousands of signatures, and there have been some favourable noises from Westminster. But favourable noises only go so far: now is the time for all our politicians to take action and end the UK’s status as a global free speech pariah.