13th September 2012
The Defamation Bill received its third reading in the House of Commons yesterday. The Libel Reform Campaign welcomes the government's promise to consider our proposals for a new public interest defence.
Speaking during report stage, in response to a proposal for a new clause that will provide an effective public interest defence, parliamentary under-secretary of state Helen Grant MP said that the government would continue to ‘look broadly’ at the issue of public interest, and if necessary bring forward amendments in the House of Lords.
The new clause received cross-party support in the debate from politicians including Simon Hughes MP, Robert Flello MP and Sir Peter Bottomley MP.
The Defamation Bill now moves to the House of Lords where Peers will debate and amend it. The Libel Reform Campaign calls on the government to honour its commitment to reform libel law. This will require:
- A simple and effective public interest defence that works for individuals and NGOs, not just large media outlets
- An effective early hurdle that will deter trivial and vexatious claims from reaching court in the first place
- Measures to limit corporations and other ‘non-natural persons’ from using libel to protect their brands
- Detailed regulations that will protect internet service providers and web hosts from liability, while ensuring that those who write online are accountable
Tracey Brown, Sense About Science: ‘MPs spoke about the need for a meaningful public interest defence and its importance to doctors, science publishers, writers, community groups and consumers. But the bill as it stands does not protect the public interest. While the libel laws are complicated the issues aren’t: do we want a society where people don’t speak out or one where free and open discussion is possible?’
Jo Glanville, English PEN: ‘Time is running out to ensure that the Defamation Bill offers the essential reform that the coalition government promised. Politicians from all parties now recognise that significant work is still needed for the bill to be fit for the 21st century. I’m delighted that the government is prepared to reconsider the public interest defence.’
Mike Harris, Index on Censorship: 'We're pleased there is cross-party support for getting the public interest defence right. However, the government also needs to act to stop corporations using our libel laws to bully individuals. Unfortunately, it has ignored repeated calls from two parliamentary committees for a higher hurdle before corporations can sue. There’s still time to get this right and protect ordinary citizens from corporations some of whom see libel claims as part of their marketing budget to defend their brands.'
The Libel Reform Campaign is a coalition of three charities: English PEN, Index on Censorship and Sense About Science. In November 2009, after a year-long inquiry, the ‘Free Speech Is Not For Sale’ report was published by English PEN and Index on Censorship. In June 2009, Sense About Science launched the Keep Libel Laws out of Science campaign publicising libel threats against scientists such as Simon Singh and Peter Wilmshurst. In December 2009, the three charities came together to form the Libel Reform Campaign with the support of a cross-party parliamentary group convened by Dr Evan Harris. Sixty thousands supporters and more than 60 organisations have joined the campaign.
The Defamation Bill 2012
All three main political parties promised reform in general election manifestoes 2010 and the coalition Government agreement contained a commitment to reform the libel laws.
The Government published a draft Defamation Bill in March 2011 which was scrutinised by a Joint Scrutiny Committee and the Ministry of Justice opened a public consultation. Hundreds of members of the public and organisations took part in both consultations. The Joint Scrutiny Committee published a report in October 2011 calling on the Government to go further to protect freedom of speech. The Government published the Defamation Bill 2012 in May 2012, it had its second reading in June and was examined by a Public Bill Committee from 19th – 26th June 2012.