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

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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