Is The UK Finally Going To Fix Its Awful Libel Laws?

from the or-will-they-sue-me-for-calling-their-libel-laws-awful? dept

For many years, there's been talk about how the UK really needed to fix its libel laws, which place much of the burden on the accused. This allows people and companies to often shut down fair and open debate on a subject, just by charging someone with libel. On top of that, it created a serious problem with "libel tourism," where people would be sued in the UK, even if the content originated elsewhere, to have the case heard under the stringent UK laws. For the last year or so there's been lots of talk about how the UK was really, really, really (no, really!) going to fix its libel laws, and it sounds like it might finally happen. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg recently announced rather specific plans to reform the current UK libel law -- which he referred to as an "international laughing stock."

While the details will certainly matter, he did lay out some specifics of what was planned, including a statutory defense for "speaking out in the public interest," as well as clarifying "fair comment and justification" defenses. Two other specifics: (1) large companies will have to show substantial damage before they can sue individuals or non-government organizations and (2) newspapers will get special privileges when covering foreign parliaments.

These all sound like steps in the right direction, though I am worried about those last two points, in that they seem to be setting up different rules for different organizations and people. Do they really mean "newspapers" or does that include purely web-based publications as well? Why will only large companies have to show that they've suffered damages? The worry is the more specific special rules you set up for special classes, the more the law becomes about carving out things around a law, rather than creating a general law that makes sense across the board.


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  1.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jan 10th, 2011 @ 3:07am

    I'm not too bothered by the libel laws. The amount of bullshit on american airwaves compared to UK shows why strong libel laws have some benefit.
    Only real issue is libel tourism, that needs to stop.

     

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    Richard (profile), Jan 10th, 2011 @ 3:13am

    Hard Cases make bad law

    I think that your worries about this development mainly stem from the influence of particular cases.

    As with the earlier post about financial regulation a lot of problems seem to arise when you try to frame regulations around a particular case or event. In this instance I think the McLibel case is probably in the minds of the politicians.

     

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    Not an electronic Rodent, Jan 10th, 2011 @ 3:38am

    Indeed

    Why will only large companies have to show that they've suffered damages?
    .... and if so, how do you define a "large company"? Number of employees? Estimated worth? Turnover? Does a (god I hate this concept) "brand" name like "Jordan" qualify as a "large company".

    Call me cynical, but it sounds like "We notice Something Needs To Be Done, but we don't have a clue what so we'll go about it in our usual shambolic and pandering way and make it more confusing at the other end".

    :-) Perhaps part the answer to level the playing field is to make the perpetrator if convicted put at least as much time, effort, money and prominence into the retraction as into the libellous article - if you said something nasty on a blog you post the retraction in the same place, if you had an exclusive front page story you licensed to others you do a front page retraction and pay the licensing money to ensure it appears elsewhere. (Yeah I know simplistic but then for probably 80% of libel cases I've heard of my first reaction was 'Who cares? Get over it.')

     

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    freak (profile), Jan 10th, 2011 @ 4:14am

    Re: Indeed

    Right now, that would make the problem worse.

    Imagine I accuse you of libel, in Britain. The onus is now on you to show that you have posted no such thing.

    In more sensible countries, I first have to prove that you DID, in fact, post libel.

    So, take for example, astrology. Let's say I'm a pissed off astronomer, and write a blog about how un-scientific and impossible the idea of astrology is. An astrologer could sue me for libel, and unless I prove each and every single point I make, to the court, I'm successfully sued.

    And now, we bring in the idea that you can't prove a negative. "There is no reasonable evidence that astrology is anything more than a sham".



    Or, y'know, Singh coming out against chiropractics.

    http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/world/indians-abroad/British-Indian-scientist-bestselling-aut hor-fights-libel/articleshow/4648628.cms

    I'd forgot about him until I started searching for the astrology lawsuit I mentioned.


    TL;DR: Punishing the defendant more is not going to help at the current moment, the problem is the number of accusers of libel, and how often those guys win when they really shouldn't.

     

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    Ben (profile), Jan 10th, 2011 @ 4:27am

    Another victim of our wonderful libel laws

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/road-and-rail-transport/8247874/Steam-buffs-sell-engine-to-pa y-libel-bill.html

    Charity sells the steam engine they were refurbishing voluntarily in order to pay libel case.

    Libel amount 7,500. Courts costs? 350,000 approx. Disgusting.

     

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    Not an electronic Rodent, Jan 10th, 2011 @ 4:58am

    Re: Re: Indeed

    Right now, that would make the problem worse.
    Entirely right, by bad for not explaining better. That's why I put "part of the answer" (emphasis added this time), intending it to be combined with some sort of fantasy law like, well you know... something based on "innocent until proven guilty", which I heard in a fairy tale once upon a time was the basis of UK law.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Jan 10th, 2011 @ 7:30am

    The UK politicians can't straighten out their own underwear let alone fix their socialist laws.

     

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  8.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jan 10th, 2011 @ 8:07am

    These sorts of changes would have limited effect, because libel tourism and the internet go hand in hand. If people in the US can hear or read the offending comments / report / video, then at least some of the harm happens in the UK.

    Further, attempting to create different classes of people / companies to set standards is a non-starter, as the courts are likely to shut this sort of thing down pretty quickly. The standards should be the same in all cases, no matter what.

    It appears to be a legislative dead end.

     

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    ChimpBush McHitlerBurton, Jan 10th, 2011 @ 9:45am

    Re: UK vs US

    The problem with the UK libel laws? You can't say ANYTHING! (practically)

    The problem with the US libel laws? You CAN say ANYTHING! (practically)

    Both are nonsense. Here's an idea: You can say whatever you want, but it has to be true. If it's not true, you are liable, that is, it's libel.

    If it's a lie, or it's bull, it's Libel (LieBull, get it?)

    Otherwise, you should be able to say whatever you damn please. If it hurts someone's reputation or profits because I say something that is verifiable, Fuck 'em. THEY are the one who hurt their reputation by doing it.

    However, if I can't prove that what I say is true, and it hurts someone's reputation, I should be held accountable.

    Pretty simple.

    CBMHB

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Jan 10th, 2011 @ 10:33am

    My question is, why would news organizations get a pass when reporting on foreign parliaments, but not on the parliament in the UK?

     

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    drew (profile), Jan 10th, 2011 @ 11:19am

    We're the UK Parliament...

    ... and knee-jerk legislation is our speciality!
    Just don't expect it to actually fix anything. After all, we're mostly ex-lawyers and the one thing we do want to ensure is more work for our friends at the bar. Oh, and us when we leave parliament of course...

     

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    freak (profile), Jan 10th, 2011 @ 11:34am

    Re: Re: Re: Indeed

    Okay, that carries a much different implicit message than I read. :p
    It's definitely not the first thing to be done, was all I'm saying.

     

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    Not an electronic Rodent, Jan 10th, 2011 @ 11:34am

    Re:

    My question is, why would news organizations get a pass when reporting on foreign parliaments, but not on the parliament in the UK?
    Because even the stupidest politician (of which there are many) isn't going to enact a law that means they can't try and sue the *rse off a newspaper for something about them whether it's true or not?

     

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    Marcus Carab (profile), Jan 10th, 2011 @ 12:34pm

    One of my favourite moments in South Park ever is Tom Cruise at the end of the Scientology episode...

    "I will sue you! I'll sue you in England!"

     

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    Not an electronic Rodent, Jan 10th, 2011 @ 12:55pm

    Re:

    The UK politicians can't straighten out their own underwear
    Well they probably could if they were in the same location, rather than their underwear having been left in.... Oops! No, better stop there - wouldn't want to be accused of anything libellous now, would I? :p

     

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  16.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jan 13th, 2011 @ 1:03am

    "My question is, why would news organizations get a pass when reporting on foreign parliaments, but not on the parliament in the UK?"

    They already have a pass on reporting what is said in the Houses of Parliament in the UK so that provision is to deal with the situation whereby if a member of another Parliament says the exact same words they currently could be sued for reporting that Parliament .

     

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