What the hell just happened with the Defamation Bill?

There’s a little bit of confusion over what happened during the Defamation Bill debate in the House of Lords yesterday afternoon, and today in the House of Commons. This is understandable, as the ‘ping-pong’ process is confusing, with ‘motions to agree amendments’… and amendments to those amendments.

The only issue at stake was was hurdles should be placed before companies wishing to sue. The pre-exising law allows corporates to bully critics with libel threats and a legal ‘reputation management’ industry has emerged, with websites and bloggers receiving threats unless they remove critical content. Which?, the consumer magazine that reviews products, often receives a legal threat after they give a product a poor rating!

In an earlier parliamentary debate, Labour succeeded in adding a significant clause to the Defamation Bill. It introduced a permissions stage for companies (you can’t sue without leave of the court) and asked them to show financial loss. It also extended the Derbyshire principle, so private bodies delivering public services could not sue when they are criticised by citizens questioning how taxpayers money is spent. Three measures in one clause.

Continue reading “What the hell just happened with the Defamation Bill?”

Defamation Day

No, not a day where we pick someone to defame.  Instead it is the final parliamentary debate on the Defamation Bill.

Following this process has been a great way to watch how law-making really happens.  In this case, the Government published a draft Bill for consultation.  The proposed law was then debated on the floor of the House of Commons, then by a smaller group of MPs in a Public Bill Committee (days 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5), then again in the House of Commons.  A similar process took place in the House of Lords, with a more generalised debate preceding detailed scrutiny in a Grand Committee (days 1, 2, 3 and 4), followed by more debates.

Now, the amendments made to the Bill by each House are being debated and accepted by the other.  Today, the House of Lords have one final aspect of the Defamation Bill to consider, which is the limits that should be placed on ‘non-natural persons’ (i.e. companies and associations) that wish to sue.

The Government have already agreed that a corporation must show financial loss if they want to claim that they have suffered serious harm, but is still dragging its feet on what access private companies delivering taxpayer-funded services should have to the libel law.

Currently, central government and local councils cannot sue their citizens!  This is established by the common-law Derbyshire principle, which protects unhibited criticism of democratically elected institutions and their agencies.  However, the trend towards contracting out public services to private companies means that this principle has been undermined.  For example, you can criticise a publically run prison, or a local council’s waste collection service… but if you criticise a private prison or a sub-contracted bin collection service, then you run the risk of a libel threat!

With the reforms to the NHS meaning more services will be commissioned from private companies, this loophole will only get bigger.  Imagine if your healthcare was managed poorly, and a blog or a tweet about it prompted a lawyers letter!

This afternoon, the House of Lords will be debating this issue and hopefully they will vote to fix it in the Defamation Bill.  I will be watching the debate online on the Houses of Parliament website.

Writing on Libel Reform on Liberal Democrat Voice

Over the weekend, I wrote a short piece about the Defamation Bill for Liberal Democrat Voice, urging activists to lobby their party leadership.  The Defamation Bill is to be debated in the House of Commons today, so it is worth cross-posting this now, before the crucial votes render it obsolete!  This morning, Stephen Tall wrote a follow up post: ‘Lib Dems Libel Reform retreat points to a wider coalition problem‘.


There is a new threat to the Defamation Bill.

No sooner had the proposed law been liberated, after being taken hostage by Leveson negotiations, than Conservative MPs have begun messing with crucial free speech provisions.

Former libel lawyer Sir Edward Garnier MP has tabled an amendment seeking to remove a crucial clause from the Defamation Bill. The clause places some limits on corporations’ use of the libel laws. It does not bar them from suing entirely – just asks that they show financial loss before they do so. It’s an objective and measurable test for companies, who after all do not have feelings.

Such a law would have discouraged the crippling libel cases brought by Big Pharma against Dr Peter Wilmshurst and Dr Ben Goldacre. It would have helped Simon Singh. It would stop the costly ‘lawfare’ waged by the extractive industries around the world against human rights groups like Global Witness. It would stop scientists and doctors from having to decide whether to speak out for their patients and risk selling their house in order to pay legal fees… Or keep their mouths shut. Continue reading “Writing on Libel Reform on Liberal Democrat Voice”

Support the Lesley Kemp Libel Fighting Fund

Here’s something I put together for the Libel Reform Campaign.

As we prepare for the Defamation Bill debate in the House of Commons on Tuesday 16 April, another libel case has emerged that demonstrates the urgent need for libel reform.

The Libel Reform Campaign is urging its supporters to support a legal fighting fund for Lesley Kemp. Lesley is a professional transcriber living in Milton Keynes. In August last year she took on some work for a film production company based overseas. After the late payment of an invoice for just £146, and the deduction of a £25 fee for the international bank transfer, Lesley tweeted her frustration. When the account was finally paid in full, she followed up with a positive tweet noting that fact.

Lesley is now being sued by the director of the production company! The claimant’s solicitors are asking for damages, a permanent injunction and legal costs.

These proceedings have had a serious impact on Lesley’s well-being. She writes:

I am unable to afford legal representation and I’m ineligible for legal aid. The costs and other expenses associated with the legal process are prohibitive to me. I am almost 56 years of age, close to retirement but it looks very likely that this action … will result in the loss of my home and business and pretty much destroy my life.

Thankfully, Robert Dougans of legal firm Bryan Cave and barrister Jonathan Price have just agreed to represent Lesley on a no-win, no-fee basis. However, she must still pay court fees, other expenses, and an interim payment of costs to be able to take the case to trial. A fighting fund for Lesley Kemp as been set up at www.kapipal.com/lesley-kemp. A few supporters of the Libel Reform Campaign have already donated, but we need more people to chip-in to help her defend the case. We only need to raise about £800 to pay the fees ordered by the court. Another £1,000 will be needed to take the case to trial.

These disproportionate libel threats are precisely the kind of actions that the Libel Reform Campaign hopes will be resolved by the Defamation Bill. The toughened defences of serious harm and truth in the Bill would discourage such claims in the future.

However, the Defamation Bill is not yet law. The new defences we have campaigned for cannot help Lesley. Please visit www.kapipal.com/lesley-kemp today and make a small donation to Lesley’s fighting fund.

Quoted in the Daily Mail, discussing Libel Reform

As well as quotes in the the Guardian and the Telegraph, I am also quoted in the Daily Mail today, discussing the same issue of libel law and corporations.

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. … Robert Sharp, of English PEN, another group calling for change to protect freedom of speech, said both subclauses were essential ‘to stop the inequality of arms that corporations use’.

 

Quotes in the Guardian and Telegraph

I’ve been quoted in newspapers twice this week.

Yesterday, the Libel Reform Campaign learnt that Sir Edward Garnier MP was seeking to remove essential provisions from the Defamation Bill. The Guardian asked me to comment:

Robert Sharp, head of campaigns and communications for English PEN, said both subclauses were essential “to stop the inequality of arms that corporations use. They use the libel law for PR.”

Sharp pointed out that Garnier does not have the full support of his party, with Tory peer Lord Mawhinney having given his support to the companies’ clause saying the fact they could sue anyone without any prima facie proof of financial damage was “a form of bullying”.

The quote from Lord Mawhinney was during a House of Lords debate on the Defamation Bill, which I attended.

I was also quoted in the Sunday Telegraph last weekend, in a piece by Andrew Gilligan about the Royal Charter and Hacked Off. I am less pleased about that one, though – it is a story about process, not policy.

Scientology and Libel Reform

Here’s a perfect example of the libel laws preventing literature and public interest debate: Pulitzer Prize-winner Lawrence Wright’s book Going Clear will not be published in the UK.  His British publiser Transworld have said that some of the content was “not robust enough for the UK market.”

This is not a euphemism for saying the book is fabricated.  It means that although the author is confident of what he has written, neither he nor his publishers can afford the time or the money to defend the claims against the (famously litigious) Church of Scientology. Continue reading “Scientology and Libel Reform”

#LibelReform: The Perils of An Inadequate Response

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.
Continue reading “#LibelReform: The Perils of An Inadequate Response”

Niall Ferguson threatens to sue Mishra

Author Niall Ferguson, who says he has been smeared by Pankaj Mishra. Photo by he Aspen Institute - Creative Commons Licence.
Author Niall Ferguson, who says he has been smeared by Pankaj Mishra. Photo by the Aspen Institute - Creative Commons Licence.

Oh dear.

A couple of weeks ago this blog praised the historian Niall Ferguson for keeping his acrimonius war of words with Pankaj Mishra on the letters page of the London Review of Books, and not in the High Court.

But yesterday we hear that Ferguson is threatening legal action, which rather undermines my point about the classiness of ‘counter-speech’ over legal threats.

I can see how Ferguson would want to pursue this issue to its conclusion.  I imagine there are few things more shocking for a historian and political commentator than to be accused of racism.  To demand satisfaction is a natural reaction.  However, reading Mishra’s review of Ferguson’s book again, the words written do seem to sit very much within the realm of opinion. It seems to me that a successful defamation claim by Ferguson would set a very worrying precedent for the future.

A Tale of Two Authors

Compare how two authors deal with book reviews that they believe to be defamatory.

First, Chris McGrath, author of “The Attempted Murder of God: Hidden Science You Really Need to Know” took blogger Vaughan Jones to the High Court over a review that Jones posted on the Amazon website, of all places.  The judgement on whether this case can proceed is expected today.

Historian Niall Ferguson was similarly upset by a negative review.  His book Civilisation was eviscerated by Pankaj Mishra in the London Review of Books (a much more credible and prominent platform than Amazon’s product review pages).  Ferguson felt he had been defamed as a racist.  However, in contrast to Chris McGrath, Ferguson chose a different forum to express his grievance and demand satisfaction – the letters page.

This approach – fighting words with more words – is precisely the kind of counter-speech I advocated in my ‘Way of The Blogs‘ piece for the Guardian a couple of years ago.  It offers a form of redress to the aggrieved person, while avoiding censorship, and it is also much cheaper.  I think it is a much classier way of dealing with critics, than hauling them down to the Royal Courts of Justice.