Labour and LibDem peers gang up to amend the Defamation Bill: Psmith Journalist shines light on our hideous libel laws
LIBEL laws in the UK are ridiculous. They’ve been so for eons. In is work Psmith Journalist, P. G. Wodehouse has Comrade Psmith note:
In the first place, we know that there must be some one at the bottom of the business. Secondly, as there appears to be no law of libel whatsoever in this great and free country, we shall be enabled to haul up our slacks with a considerable absence of restraint…
“You may leave it to me, Comrade Windsor. I am no hardened old journalist, I fear, but I have certain qualifications for the post. A young man once called at the office of a certain newspaper, and asked for a job. ‘Have you any special line?’ asked the editor. ‘Yes,’ said the bright lad, ‘I am rather good at invective.’ ‘Any special kind of invective?’ queried the man up top. ‘No,’ replied our hero, ‘just general invective.’ Such is my own case, Comrade Windsor. I am a very fair purveyor of good, general invective… Taking full advantage of the benevolent laws of this country governing libel, I fancy I will produce a screed which will make this anonymous lessee feel as if he had inadvertently seated himself upon a tin-tack…”
The laws governing libel make British journalists look askance with envy to their American peers. The laws protect the fabulously wealthy and big companies. If a critic says something you don’t like, fire off a lawyer’s letter and accuse the writer of libel. The cost of arguing the matter is so high, the fines so massive that only a fool would not retract and settle out of court. The rich come to the UK to make use of these pisspoor libel laws.
Can things be altered? Matthew Parris spots a problem:
To reform this, the Defamation Bill was the result of years of campaigning and consultation, not least by the Libel Reform Campaign, a group affiliated to Index on Censorship of which I am a board member. The Bill, a government measure with all-party support, clarifies the law relating to libel, updates it for the digital age, stops libel tourism, helps to sharpen up for journalists the “public interest” defence, and (if the post-Leveson settlement were to establish a machinery of non-statutory arbitration for the newspaper industry) could put cheap arbitration within ordinary citizens’ reach.
On Tuesday, at the urging of the Labour peer Lord Puttnam, Labour and Lib Dem peers ganged together in the Lords to amend the Bill. Their move could at a stroke and at the eleventh hour wreck libel reform, as I shall explain.
Peers have just voted for a poisonous measure that will threaten crippling financial penalties on any publisher who (a) doesn’t agree to use a state-backed arbitration service to settle a libel claim; or (b) doesn’t submit what they plan to publish to a state-backed regulator for clearance (the amendment coyly calls this “pre-submission”) before publication.
Why poisonous? Imagine that you are a newspaper editor. A reporter has written a piece someone might object to as defamatory. This clause puts you at great risk unless you get the regulator’s approval before publishing. Of course the regulator would often want you to discuss your planned report with those whose reputations it might touch. There would ensue endless to-ing and fro-ing by lawyers on all sides and injunctions and threats of injunctions, in which your ownership of the story, any element of surprise and weeks or months would be lost. Super-injunctions by the rich and powerful can already stop public- interest investigative journalism in its tracks, costing a paper up to £100,000 a day in court to try to overturn…
Psmith has the last word, as the righteous must:
His next words proved his demoralisation.
“I’ll sue you for libel,” said he.
Psmith looked at him admiringly.
“Say no more,” he said, “for you will never beat that. For pure richness and whimsical humour it stands alone. During the past seven weeks you have been endeavouring in your cheery fashion to blot the editorial staff of this paper off the face of the earth in a variety of ingenious and entertaining ways; and now you propose to sue us for libel! I wish Comrade Windsor could have heard you say that. It would have hit him right.”
Libel has become the cry of the elite…
More at The Libel Reform Campaign.