Political pressure is mounting for a much needed review of libel laws.
Labour MP Dennis MacShane joined forces with Conservative MP Michael Gove and Norman Lamb from the Lib Dems to demand the government do something to reform the existing law and make it more difficult for ‘libel tourists’ to use UK courts to claim large sums from the press. Speaking in a debate in the Commons this week the three MPs highlighted the importance of free speech and the dangers posed by UK laws that were allowing foreign regimes to extend their censorship and exact punishment through the UK courts.
Justice Minister Bridget Prentice responded by promising various measures including a review of the qualified privilege defence, the abolition of criminal libel and a public consultation on defamation and the internet. The all party Commons media committee is due to conduct a full review of libel laws in 2009.
Mediabeak thinks its high time these matters were addressed and considers there are three areas that need urgent attention:
First, some formalisation of the rules of qualified privilege and the parameters of the public interest defence. This is an important shield for the media that promotes investigative journalism and allows the public to be informed about wrong-doing, corruption and scandals.
Second, more clarity around internet libel and how publication and repetition are treated and liability surrounding them engaged. We’ve moved on from an era where today’s newsprint becomes tomorrow’s chip paper, what appears in print is also online and from the moment a story ‘goes live’ online its reach and effect are limitless. There needs to be better regulation that protects against online ‘wildfire’ of defamatory material while at the same time safeguarding the freedom of the press and the blogging public to share information and engage in free expression.
Thirdly, the forum shopping that allows wealthy ‘libel tourists’ to go media bashing in the UK courts. When an exiled foreign dictator can sue the UK press without setting foot in the UK something is wrong. Those calling the press to account should also, to a reasonable degree, have to account for themselves. The current laws that allow people to cry foul and create a presumption that the press have told untruths place an often disproportionate burden on free expression.