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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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  • Bob

    I remain curious about the results of overlapping the a judgement that an article is ‘inaccurate and damaging’ with the proposed defences (described more fully in comment on the original article). E.g. It seems curious that an article, judged to be ‘inaccurate’ could then be ‘truthful’. While the other combinations of the proposed three defence strategies with the ‘inaccurate and damaging’ are not so logically curious they are also worthy of, perhaps, some examples where (e.g.) it would be in the public interest to publish something that was inaccurate and damaging etc. It seems to me (though I’m not a legal expert or a journalist) that once ‘inaccurate and damaging’ are established none of the three defences should provide a ‘get out of jail free’ card, though they might act to reduce the severity of sanctions. This would seem reasonable to me in the case of, say, an amateur blogger without direct access to primary sources but might be less justifiable for a professional journalist with the professional backup of research groups etc.

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