Consultation paper on a draft Defamation bill for UK. Public interest defence recommended.

March 17, 2011 |

According to reforms proposed by the UK Government journalists will be able to rely on the defence that they published responsibly and in the public interest in defamation cases.  This means a defence of ‘honest opinion’ will replace that of ‘fair comment’.

Reform campaigners have said that proposals should go further, though. The Libel Reform Campaign said that the public interest defence should be stronger and that corporations should not be allowed to sue for libel.

According to the draft Defamation Bill  “a statement must have caused, or is likely to cause, substantial harm in order for it to be defamatory.”

According to the MOJ release the Bill includes: “a new statutory defence of responsible publication on matters of public interest; a statutory defence of truth (replacing the current common law defence of justification); [and] a statutory defence of honest opinion (replacing the current common law defence of fair/honest comment)”. It also says:

“The Government’s draft Defamation Bill will ensure that anyone who makes a statement of fact or expresses an honest opinion can do so with confidence,” said Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke. “However it is never acceptable to harm someone’s reputation without just cause, so the Bill will ensure defamation law continues to balance the needs of both sides and encourage a just outcome in libel cases.”

“The right to speak freely and debate issues without fear of censure is a vital cornerstone of a democratic society,” said Clarke. “In recent years though, the increased threat of costly libel actions has begun to have a chilling effect on scientific and academic debate, and investigative journalism.”

The Libel Reform Campaign, an umbrella organisation incorporating campaign groups on censorship, science and writing, saysthat reforms did not go far enough.

The Libel Reform Campaign led by English PEN, Index on Censorship and Sense About Science have welcomed the Government’s draft Defamation Bill as ‘a great starting point’ to ensure the first overhaul of our archaic libel laws, but calls upon Parliament to go further in key areas. Since its launch 18 months ago, 55,000 people have signed up to the campaign, with over half of all eligible MPs backing our Early Day Motion in the last session of Parliament. This is the first time any government has promised wholesale reform of our libel laws since 1843.

In particular, the campaign calls for:

• a stronger public interest defence
• an end to the ability of corporations to sue in libel
• more protection for web-hosts and internet service providers from liability for the words of others.

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