Libel Law in the UK

British libel laws are of the utmost importance to all journalists in the UK, even more so now from the emergence of the internet. Their underlying aim is to balance the right of free speech against protection for the reputation of an individual from unjustified attack.

By definition, a person is defamed if statements; expose him to hatred or ridicule, cause him to be shunned, lower him in the estimation in the minds of “right-thinking” members of society or disparage him in his work.  However, there are defences available; by proving a statement to be true, fair comment, it being a genuinely held opinion or not influenced by malice.  A deeper understanding can be made with The Guardian’s James Struckle in Libel Laws explained.

Libel and Press Freedom, as defined by Parliament, discusses how the UK’s libel laws operate in practice and the effect they have on press reporting. It considers important recent cases and developments since the 1996 Defamation Act, including the defence of ‘responsible journalism’, the Government’s consultation on the issue of ‘multiple publication’ in the internet age.  Concerns about the costs of mounting and defending libel actions, and the ‘chilling effect’ this may have on press freedom is also reviewed. As the UK does not have a written constitution with a First Amendment protecting freedom of speech as the US does, this is also reviewed.

In recent news, President Obama signed into US law legislation aimed at protecting American authors, journalists and academics from Britain’s libel laws.  The Securing the Protection of our Enduring and Established Constitutional Heritage Act, known as the SPEECH Act, makes libel judgments against US writers in foreign territories unenforceable if they are perceived to counter the First Amendment right to free speech.  This is important for US journalists even more so from the impact of the internet.  However, The Guardian reported how the British-based Libel Reform Campaign has expressed concern that Britain’s reputation is being damaged internationally due to what it calls “our restrictive, archaic and costly libel laws, which cost 140 times the European equivalent.”

The Libel Reform Campaign, an organisation fighting against UK laws, are promoting an online petition for change.  They believe: “England’s libel laws are unjust, against the public interest and internationally criticised”.  Followers of the Campaign that have signed the petition include Ian Hislop, Jonathon Ross and Stephen Fry.  

The Libel Reform Campaign / English PEN CharityIndex on Censorship report has shown that there is an urgent need to amend the law to provide a stronger, wider and more accessible public interest defence. 

Jonathan Heawood, Director of English PEN said to the Liberal Reform Campaign: “Our libel laws allow people accused of funding terrorism or dumping toxic waste in Africa to silence their critics whilst ‘super-injunctions’ stop the public from even knowing that such allegations exist. We need to reform our libel laws now, and that’s why we’re launching a national campaign to persuade our politicians to do so.”

John Kampfner, the CEO of Index on Censorship, also said to the Liberal Reform Campaign: “If we don’t act we’re at risk of becoming a global pariah. There are US States who view English libel law as so damaging to free speech they have passed laws to effectively block the decisions of English judges. Our report is an important milestone in modernising our antiquated and chilling approach to free expression.”

On a whole, the cost of a libel trial is often in excess of £1 million and 140 times more expensive than libel cases in mainland Europe; publishers (and individual journalists, authors, academics, performers and blog-writers) cannot risk such extortionate costs, which means that they are forced to back down, withdraw and apologise for material they believe is true, fair and important to the public.

Supporting press freedom, in recent news MPs have demanded a crackdown on ‘chilling’ libel and privacy laws, warning that freedom of speech is under fire from the courts. In a report, the Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee expressed concern that the freedom of the Press to expose wrongdoing and report on Parliament had been eroded by privacy clauses in the Human Rights Act.

In the report the MPs:

  • Expressed concern about the use of ‘super-injunctions’ – often by celebrities such as footballer John Terry – which even ban the reporting of the fact that they exist;
  • Called for urgent changes to the huge fees libel lawyers charge;
  • Demanded action to stop foreign litigants coming to the UK to launch libel cases in Britain’s more amenable courts;
  • Criticised the Press Complaints Commission as ‘lacking credibility’ and say it should be able to fine papers and ban them from publishing for a day; 
  • Said papers must put allegations to those they are writing about in advance of publication.

On a whole, the defamation cases mostly in the public eye are those of celebrities, with David Beckham, Kate Winslet and Elton John all recently suing newspapers.  In fact in the last two years, libel actions brought about by celebrities in sport and show business have soared.  Defamation cases leapt from 57 in 2007/08 to 78  in 2008/2009 — a rise of 36 per cent. The figures then increased by another six per cent to 83 during 2009/10 as shown by The London Evening Standard. The researchers attribute the rise to a wider use of digital media monitoring services by stars’ representatives to identify potentially damaging material. 

In keeping with libel law, next we will examine a case study and current topic in the news, the phone hacking scandal, and just how digital technology is impacting on journalists and effecting press freedom.

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