Since January we’ve been fighting against the desire of the press to get libel reform without independent regulation. But regulation without libel reform would be equally dangerous – and that’s what some in the ruling party are now proposing.
“Sir Edward Garnier, Tory MP and libel lawyer, has tabled an amendment due to be debated before the house of commons on Tuesday, to remove a section which for the first time would force companies to show financial damage was caused by something written by a journalist, academics or bloggers, before they can sue for libel.
“He is also asking for the deletion of another clause designed to enshrine in law the freedom to make uninhibited criticism of local authorities. Under clause 2 of the present bill, a law would be passed preventing anybody performing “a public function” from suing, something that has already been established in case law in 1993 when Derbyshire Council sued the Times and lost.”
These clauses are crucial. Without a requirement to show damage, there is a danger that companies can use libel courts as an arm of their PR operations, simply suppressing what they don’t want in the public sphere.
As for the other, the Guardian has got the Derbyshire principle slightly wrong: ‘non-natural persons’ means corporate bodies like councils and companies (as Derbyshire established, individuals can still sue for defamation concerning themselves specifically). But applied to legal persons, it’s a crucial protection for journalists ‘guarding the guardians’. Indeed, it is already established case law – so clarifying and simplifying it in a Bill is a no-brainer.
We’ve always seen any ‘Leveson law’ as working in concert with libel reform. The Puttnam Amendments slammed as “wrecking” the Defamation Bill were always designed to make sure we had both, and the government’s initial reaction – holding the DB hostage to avoid ‘statutory’ regulation – was disgraceful for that reason.
Moreover, we’ve always seen this crisis of faith in the press as an opportunity to give the press more power, not less, to guard in the public interest. A deal that simply curbs the excesses of the media will never be preferable to one that enriches and empowers investigative journalism – as codified public interest defences would do, as conscience clauses would do, and as libel reform would do.
We want a reform in which greater freedom of investigation is coupled with more recognition for the rights of those we write about, and the Defamation Bill is a key part of that. Press curbs without libel reform, on the other hand, would be regressive, and would risk the kind of “chilling effect” that has dominated media section headlines for the last three months.Garnier is just one MP, but his logic can’t be allowed to take hold.