On Twitter: @JamesFirth and @s_r_o_c (post feed)

Got a tip? tip@sroc.eu

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Why it's important to pull together on libel reform, despite some differences

Snippet from a libel threat received
by this blog, from a public body!
The government has published a draft Defamation Bill, and there's a powerful series of recommended amendments in a report by an influential Joint Committee, so libel reform is a given, right?

Not so, as there's a risk, hinted at by Julian Huppert in his closing comments, that if we don't put-aside arguments over some of the detail, we might not get reform at all.

Last night's event held in Parliament was organised by English penSense about Science and Index on Censorship.  For more details see the Libel Reform Campaign, and sign the petition

There's an overwhelming need for a new Libel Act, as people and organisations from cardiologist Peter Wilmshurst and scientist Simon Singh, to Facebook, AOL and the Publisher's Association spoke of their own experiences and reminded a packed committee room of the free speech imbalance brought by the UK's arcane law, developed throughout an era of Fleet Street dominance.

Libel in the UK was an issue but never a real problem before the internet.  It is heavily weighted in favour of the plaintiff; but, until the advent of blogging and social media, this kind of worked.  It gave citizens an effective tool to fight the massive power of the unregulated British press.

But the era of the libel arms race is over. Many traditional newspapers no longer have the spare cash, in relative terms, to fight libel. And certainly most website operators and social media participants lack the cash to mount a legal defence, when the "Cost of action in England is 140 times that of the average in other European countries," says the report.

Indeed having no cash - nothing to lose - has made some online participants fearless. This, together with the complexity of tracing anonymous and pseudonymous publishers encourages libel claimants to push their grievances up the chain, to the internet service providers and social platform operators.

Pushing up to the service providers has lead to a "take-down culture", we heard, where service providers, unable to shoulder the legal risk, were forced to remove comments and criticism whether or not it was true.

So it's time to fix the legislation and introduce a law fit for the digital age.  The audience was told of the need to drag defamation laws not from the 20th century but from the 19th century and into the 21st.

Yet, whilst the campaign has come along way, reform is still not guaranteed, said both Evan Harris and Julian Huppert MP.  It should be a "no-brainer", but there's no certainty that the badly-needed legislation would make it into the Queen's Speech next spring, providing the necessary and significant parliamentary time to develop the bill and enact into law.

But the focus on the internet brings a range of other vested interests, opening up a plethora of concerns driven by fear or a desire to control or shape the new medium.

And so we see concern over anonymous comments and anonymous "culture" creeping into the Joint Committee report, and no recommendation for corporate libel claimants to prove malice* (as well as substantial financial harm, which did make it in to the report) in order to win a libel case.

Two things: 1. I pointed out in an earlier post that the "attack" on anonymous posting wasn't as bad as some press reports had stated, and 2. there's nothing to stop us getting behind the bulk of the report now, promoting it as the bulk of our wishlist, whilst working behind the scenes to ensure arguments about the details get a proper airing when the bill gets to the Committee stages in the Houses of Parliament.

My wishlist therefore is:
  1. Reform in the Queen's Speech
  2. Adoption of the bulk of the Joint Committee report
  3. Plenty of time and minimal whipping as the bill passes through parliament, so that the details can be properly debated.

* Evan Harris pointed out there was a technical debate about incorporating malice and compatibility with the European law, and this was the reason proving malice didn't make it as a condition of corporate libel in the Joint Committee report. The Campaign for Libel Reform was working to further the arguments to include malice as a precondition for corporate defamation.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments will be accepted so long as they're on-topic, do not include gratuitous language and do not include personal attacks or libellous assertions.

Comments are the views of the commentator and not necessarily the view of the blog owner.

Comments on newer posts are not normally pre-moderated and the blog owner cannot be held responsible for comments made by 3rd parties.

Requests for comment removal will be considered via the Contact section (above) or email to editorial@slightlyrightofcentre.com.