First posted on OpenDemocracy
The government has responded to grassroots pressure for libel reform, but its proposals do not go far enough towards genuinely safeguarding free speech on the internet and ensuring that powerful corporations cannot silence their critics.
During a panel event on Defamation Reform earlier this year, the lawyer Paul Tweed said that the recent focus on Libel Tourism was the result of “the most successful lobbying campaign since that conducted by the tobacco industry”. Those of us at English PEN, Index on Censorship and Sense About Science who had done some of that lobbying gleefully re-tweeted Tweed’s back-handed compliment.
We’re lobbying for libel reform in the UK because we believe the law is not fit for purpose in the 21st Century. The high cost of fighting an action in the High Court is coupled with a law that seems to prioritise reputation over free expression. The truth of the matter and the harm caused are presumed in favour of the claimant. And because the law has not been updated to reflect the invention of the Internet, each web-page is treated as a ‘publication’ as if it were a book printed in the country where it is read. All this has created the phenomenon of Libel Tourism, where foreign libel claimants take advantage of the English Courts’ claimant-friendly jurisdiction.