Libel Reform is 190 Years Overdue

Happy Birthday to The Guardian, 190 years old today. In its regular archive feature, the paper presents Its first ever editorial, which features a demand for libel reform:

Nor is the career of the Editor of a Newspaper attended with moral responsibility alone, it is encompassed with dangers; dangers against which the best and purest intentions furnish a preservative. In the present state of the libel law, his duty to his country and himself will often be at variance. Circumstances may imperiously call for a prompt and fearless exposure of deliquency in high places. In the ardour of laudable indignation he may pass those “metes and bounds” which the discretion of the Attorney General assigns to the freedom of the press – he is not permitted either to prove the truth of his allegations, or to negative the averments of the charge against him. In short he is asked to defend himself, where the law (or at least the practice of the Courts) renders defence impossible – he is convicted, and banishment presents itself to his mind as the penalty of a second involuntary or even laudable transgression.
For ourselves, we are enemies to surrility and slander on either side, and though we will not compromise the right of making pointed animadversions on public questions, we hope to deliver them, as that even our political opponents shall admit the propriety of the spirit in which they are written.

Did lettered people really use the word animadversions in everyday discourse? (I promise to do so from now on.) Apart from the flowery nineteenth century language, these are sentiments that could be written today. In fact, a scrutiny committee is takings evidence in Parliament this week on the government’s draft defamation bill. I went to yesterday’s session, chaired by Lord Mahwinney, and the arguments put forward by the Libel Reform Campaign yesterday each find an analogous complaint in the Manchester Guardian’s editorial.
“Circumstances may imperiously call for a prompt and fearless exposure of delinquency” captures the need, still essential today, to firm up defences of public interest. “He is not permitted to prove the truth of his allegations” speaks to the long held complaint that truth is very often irrelevant in high-stakes libel cases (the draft bill has a very welcome clause to rectify this). The phrase about “banishment presents itself to his mind” pompously captures the terrible self-censorship that most publishers, journalists and bloggers routinely engage in when choosing to report on powerful people.
Even some of the critics of the current campaign find their words mirrored by the campaigners of 1821. Professors Alistair Mullis of UEA and Andrew Scott of The LSE also gave evidence to the scrutiny committee yesterday. Their claim is that the libel chill is purely a function of high costs. 190 years ago, The Manchester Guardian article rightly complained about “the practice of the courts”. The costly process by which libel cases are fought – always in the High Court, never in less expensive fora – is undoubtedly a major part of the problem… and has been for nearly two centuries!
I’m glad that the editorial does not neglect to mention a crucial message of the Libel Reform campaign – that reputation is important and responsible journalism must be encouraged. The Manchester Guardian writes this as “we are enemies to scurrility and slander”, which I like.
In one respect though, the short-sighted and unimaginative leader writers of 1821 failed miserably to predict future concerns, and that is with regards to protections for Internet Service Providers. Nowhere in that first editorial can I find an analogy for the “privatisation of censorship” that occurs when lawyers send takedown threats to ISPs hosting controversial content. Measures to protect ISPs from this kind of liability are also absent from the government’s draft bill – a curiously nineteenth century omission. I hope readers of Liberal Conspiracy will instinctively support the inclusion of such a clause into the defamation bill, ensuring that authors take responsibility for their content, not the distant ISPs that provide the server space. A good way to signal your support would be to write to your MP. The Libel Reform Campaign would be exceedingly beholden to those in our number that undertake to do so.

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