Liberal Hero of the Week #36: The #LibelReform Campaign. (Our Liberal Villain is Sir Edward Garnier QC, MP)

by Stephen Tall on April 26, 2013

Liberal Hero of the Week is chosen by Stephen Tall, Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and Research Associate at CentreForum. The series showcases those who promote any of the four liberal tenets identified in The Orange Book — economic, personal, political and social liberalism — regardless of party affiliation and from beyond Westminster. If they stick up for liberalism in some way then they’re in contention.

cf hero libel reform

The #LibelReform Campaign

The campaign to reform the UK’s libel laws
Reason: for ensuring through the Defamation Bill 2013 that free speech isn’t silenced by those with big bank accounts

Libel reform: it’s hardly a sexy campaigning topic, is it? So a lot of kudos is due to a lot of people for ensuring that the Defamation Bill cleared the final parliamentary hurdles this week and is now set to become the Defamation Act 2013.

The ability of an individual to defend their reputation in court is of course a fundamental freedom. But this country’s libel laws, largely unreformed since 1843, had reached the point where they could be used by the rich and powerful to silence views they didn’t like. Many threatened libel cases didn’t even reach the courts: the mere threat of financial ruin was often enough to deter individuals from arguing their case.

The new law will still mean it’s possible to sue and to be sued, but it has raised the threshold:

  1. It now needs to be shown that a statement has caused or is likely to cause serious harm to reputation.
  2. A public interest defence has been introduced to ensure doctors, human rights NGOs and consumer groups can speak out on matters they reasonably believe to be of wider public interest.
  3. Corporations (usually those with the deepest pockets) will have to show that any statements they want to sue about were likely to cause serious financial loss.
  4. The author is held primarily responsible now rather than the publisher, giving greater protection to publishers to offer a platform to controversial voices.
  5. An end to ‘libel tourism’ with the clear statement that you can only be sued in this country if it can be shown England is the appropriate place.

(You can read more about the details of the Bill in this briefing on the Sense about Science website.)

Usually this Liberal Heroes series highlights a single individual to exemplify a wider point. But Nick Cohen has already written that article — Simon Singh: Let us now praise a bloody-minded hero — about the doctor who took on the British Chiropractic Association when it sued him for criticising the therapy it promotes as ‘bogus’ in an attempt to shut down the debate about alternative medicine.

So instead I want simply to highlight this heroic campaign, Libel Reform, which has succeeded in taking a dry-as-dust area of law and transformed it into a campaign uniting so many — campaigning organisations, politicians, writers, comedians, academics, scientists, broadcasters, and many, many more — all in the defence of free speech which belongs to us all.

cf villain edward garnier

Sir Edward Garnier QC

Libel lawyer and Conservative MP
Reason: for trying to protect companies from the Defamation Bill

While it seems invidious to highlight one individual as heroic for securing reform I’ve no such compunction in singling out Sir Edward Garnier for his last-ditch attempt to protect the interests of companies and those in public office. Here’s the Daily Mail report from a couple of weeks ago:

Libel lawyer and Tory MP Sir Edward Garnier has put down amendments to the Government’s Defamation Bill that would remove key sections designed to boost freedom of speech. The legislation currently states that companies must show that financial damage was caused by something written by a journalist, academic or blogger, before they can sue for libel. Campaigners say the clause is vital to protect the interests of scientists and writers who have been muzzled by big business and drug firms under the threat that they might face ruinous damages.

Sir Edward, a former Solicitor General, wants to strip that protection out of the Bill. He has also put down an amendment to remove a clause that prevents anybody performing ‘a public function’ from suing. That is seen by libel reform campaigners as a vital protection enshrining in law the freedom to criticise town hall chiefs. Sir Edward’s move, if successful, could allow councillors to bully cash-strapped local newspapers and deter negative coverage of their activities and use of public money.

But even after his earlier attempts failed, even this week he was trying to re-introduce amendments into the House of Commons to un-do the reforms. His efforts were blocked, but they cannot go unrecognised: which is why he’s my choice as Liberal Villain.

* You can view our list of ‘Liberal Heroes of the Week’ (and occasional ‘Liberal Villains’) here. Nominations are welcome via email or Twitter.