Lib Dems’ libel reform retreat points to a wider Coalition problem

by Stephen Tall on April 16, 2013

Frankly, it’s the last thing Nick Clegg needed. After losing several high profile Lib Dem supporters over the party’s botched handling of the Government’s ‘secret courts’ legislation, another core liberal reform, one promised in the 2010 manifesto, is threatened by a Coalition compromise: libel reform.

Robert Sharp of free speech campaign group English PEN wrote here at the weekend about the threat posed to the defamation bill by Conservative MP (and former libel lawyer) Sir Edward Garnier’s amendment to the Defamation Bill, striking out the clause which makes it harder for companies to sue for libel. The Independent reports:

… ministers announced [on Sunday] that they would seek to overturn a cross-party consensus in the House of Lords that companies should have to show financial damage before they can sue a journalist, academic or blogger. They are also seeking to block proposals that would prevent private companies which provide public services paid for by the taxpayer from suing.

The changes will mean that, while a prison run directly by the Government can be criticised without fear of defamation, a prison run by a private contractor such as G4S cannot.

The Conservative move is being backed by the Liberal Democrats despite the fact the party specifically supported the reforms in its manifesto. The amendment will replace a similar one tabled by the Conservative MP and libel barrister Sir Edward Garnier last week, which also met with anger from reformers.

The paper quotes a Lib Dem spokesperson saying:

“Unfortunately we are in a Coalition and this was one of those areas where we could not get our Conservative colleagues to agree with us.”

Three quick points:

1. Libel reform is not a major public issue of concern. It is, however, an issue that matters greatly to liberals: it’s not just about free speech, but about the ability of those with money to use that power effectively to silence those without.

2. I don’t know what options were open to the Lib Dems. If Labour is opposed to the amendment then the party could have joined forces to block it. That would make reneging on our manifesto promise hard to justify. [Update: Labour’s justice spokesman Sadiq Khan has, I see, confirmed Labour will vote against the Government’s amendment to its bill: “it’s crucial that we prevent large and powerful institutions using the mere threat of defamation proceedings to chill free speech. … We hope the Liberal Democrats will abide by their manifesto commitments on this issue and support Labour in defeating Conservative attempts at diluting the Bill.” As I said, this makes the Lib Dem position hard to justify: why should the party’s representatives vote against the manifesto on an issue not covered by the Coalition Agreement?] If not, then the party’s options are limited and pragmatism is a fair enough response: some reform is better than none.

3. This issue points to wider problem: the lack of mandate for legislation in the second half of the parliament. Packaged up, as the Coalition Agreement was, we all get to see how the compromises net out across all the issues of government. But when they crop up on an individual basis — as we’ve already seen with ‘secret courts’ — dissent stacks up against each and every measure. (Separate, but related, we’re seeing a likely rebellion (of both Lib Dems and Tories) on the so-called ‘planning free-for-all’ today.)

One lesson to be drawn from all this is that, should there be another Coalition of whatever hue, there needs to be a proper mid-term re-assessment built in: a Coalition 2.0. I don’t pretend such a process would be easy. But the present alternative — antagonising your own core supporters with unannounced retreats and initiatives — is hardly more appealing.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum, and also writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.