The latest reforms to UK libel law will encourage greater freedom of expression, believes Robert Sharpe, Head of Campaigns & Communications at English PEN. In a useful and informative piece on OpenDemocracy.net, he explains the new UK Defamation Act 2013 and discusses how it may develop in practice.
Sharpe points out that England’s previous libel law was a noticeable constraint on free expression in the UK. “I’ve spoken to dozens of ordinary people who have had their free speech curtailed by the English law of libel. One of those was a school governor, who had been involved in a public campaign against a major property development next to the school. After preparing a press release on the issue outlining the school’s objections, the man received an ominous e-mail back from the property developer, saying, ‘I suggest you choose your words very carefully’.”
The old libel law affected large numbers of ordinary citizens who were not professional journalists or bloggers, he says, discouraging them from campaigning on issues that they often felt were of local importance. For every high-profile case that reached the courts, there were dozens more that were settled behind closed doors or where the complainants were silenced by threats of court action.
In the new act, the claimant has to show that they have actually been harmed by a defamatory comment, something that was not previously required. In particular, website managers and bloggers will not be held liable for articles and comments posted by others, as long as they follow a set procedure to let the author know of any complaint.
And in a boost to protection for peer-reviewed publications, scientists and researchers will be able to publish the results of their research without fear of a writ from any pharmaceutical and technology companies whose products they may criticise.
The clarity of the new act, he says, gives greater support for free expression and wil encourage publishers of all sizes. “Investigative journalists will have more confidence in exploring difficult areas, and human rights NGOs like Human Rights Watch and Global Witness (who regularly receive legal threats when publishing reports) will be emboldened.”
And for Mr Average Joe Blogger or someone who simply wishes to object to an unwelcome development in the local community, the new act is very welcome. Any piece for online publication can now be checked against the act before publishing, rather than bringing worry about legal writs afterwards.
Which means more courageous, and probably more outspoken, blogging in the future. A victory for good sense and the common man? I hope so.
Read the full article at: http://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/robert-sharp/what-next-for-libel-reform-in-britain
© Philip Hunt, 2013.