Libel law reform - the long awaited levelling of the playing field

The Ministry of Justice has today published its long awaited draft Defamation Bill which brings a well overdue and much anticipated shake up of the much maligned and media unfriendly libel laws.

Key provisions in the draft Bill include:
•A new 'public interest' defence which can be used by defendants in defamation cases.
•A requirement for claimants to demonstrate substantial harm before they can sue.
•Reducing so-called “libel tourism” by making it tougher to bring overseas claims which have little connection to the UK in the English courts.
•A single publication rule, meaning repeat claims for libel cannot be made every time a publication is accessed on the internet.

These measures are good news for the media and level the playing field in terms of being able to expose wrongdoing without fear that celebrities and politicians or footballers can call foul without making out a real case, proving actual damage and engage in forum shopping.

The public interest defence will be a welcome inclusion as 'public interest' has been a component in mounting a defence but not properly defined and given the extent to which the public's perception of reality gets maniputlated by those in power or with celebrity status on a daily basis, it is time there is a proper measure that allows the media to expose such manipulation and question what truly IS in the public interest or discuss issues that the public may be interested in by virtue of the stories they have previously been fed by those seeking to enhance their public profile.

Requiring claimants to demonstrate not just substantial but actual harm is another levelling measure. Under the existing law the mere fact that a statement is 'capable' of being defamatory will engage the law and claimiants do not have - other than for slander - have to show any actual loss. So a move from potential to defame to actual defaming and attendant harm makes much sense and again, will prevent the law being used to punish justified exposees.

The introduction - echoing a recent Supreme Court judgment the Bill also introduces a 'right to comment' or 'honest opinion' defence. This develops and restates - with necessary refinements - the existing 'fair comment' defence and recognises that there is a 'right' that exists as opposed to defaulting to a 'defence' that one has to prove.

Consultation on the Bill is open until 10 June after which it will move forward from draft to final version. Hopefully much of the welcome provisions and clarifications in the draft Bill will make it through and there are still some further refinements that can be made to many of the existing draft provisions. All in all though Mediabeak thinks this is an overdue and welcome acknowledgement that the law needs to be changed and that there needs to be a fairer balance between the right to scritnise and comment and the protection of those who are subject to such scrutiny.

So the draft Bill does not give carte blanche for the media to pick off people's indiscretions to chase headlines but it does give the press the added security that where there is wrongdoing, indiscretion, lying, cheating and general dodgy dealing then it can ply its trade without the odds being unfairly stacked against exposing those with low morals and deep pockets.

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