Libel Law Reform

The Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee has published a Report on “Press standards, privacy and libel”.

The Report was prompted by concerns about the balance between personal privacy, libel law and press freedom, and also by the failure of the Press Complaints Commission to address persistent libelling by the UK press of the family of Madeline McCann.

It is 167 pages long and extremely wide-ranging. Besides containing a curiously under-reported allegation that the News of the World obscured the truth about the extent of illegal phone hacking by its journalists, the Report also considers the hot topic of libel tourism. 

“Libel tourism” describes the practice of claimants (in Scotland “pursuers”) choosing to bring libel suits in jurisdictions more likely to give a favourable result, even if hardly anybody in that particular jurisdiction has read the alleged libel.  Avid readers of Brodies Tech Blog will recall that back in August I discussed how a defamation action against a Dubai newspaper brought by a Dubai property developer regarding business events in Dubai came to be heard in the English High Court.  Libel tourism has become so prevalent that the US Congress is considering legislation to protect their citizens from the enforcement of libel settlements made in foreign jurisdictions. The Report concludes that: “it is a humiliation for our system that the US legislators should feel the need to take steps to protect freedom of speech from what are seen as unreasonable incursions by our courts.”

Secretary of State for Justice Jack Straw’s position a few months ago was that he didn’t see libel tourism as being a problem. However he has had a rethink, and it will now be specifically examined by the Ministry of Justice’s working group on libel. The terms of reference of the group are “to consider whether the law of libel, including the law relating to libel tourism, in England and Wales needs reform, and if so to make recommendations as to solutions.” A full list of members of the working group can be found here.

In stark contract to the Select Committee of MPs which produced the report, the working group is composed largely of newspaper editors and lawyers. Media law consultant David Banks is involved in the working group and reported on his blog at the start of the year that it was scheduled to meet 3 times in January, February and March, before reporting its recommendations to Jack Straw by mid-March.

It will be interesting to see how the recommendations of the working group compare to the recommendations of the Report.

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