UK Politicians Offer An Awful Bargain: Give Up Free Press If You Want Defamation Reform

from the free-expression-shouldn't-be-horse-traded dept

For many, many years, we’ve discussed the problems of UK defamation/libel laws, which basically put the burden on the accused, and are very broadly applied. They’ve also given rise to cases of “libel tourism,” whereby people sue in the UK for statements made online, even if neither party is in the UK. The chilling effects on speech in the UK have been quite massive, with the case about Simon Singh being one of the most prominent. Singh wrote some columns challenging some unsubstantiated claims by the British Chiropractic Association, and got hit with a massive libel suit in response. And since the burden is on Singh to prove it’s not defamation, it’s an incredibly difficult position to be in. Thankfully, the BCA eventually abandoned that case due to massive negative publicity, but it still highlighted the problems with UK defamation law and how it could be abused to create chilling effects on speech.

Of course, fixing the problem has been a long and ongoing process as well, with various defamation reform packages proposed, but never getting anywhere. It had looked like the latest proposal might finally have a chance of passing… but that may now be scuttled due to a different controversial idea that has been attached to the bill.

As you may recall, after the News Corp. phone hacking scandal, the UK set up a commission on “media ethics” to explore issues related to preventing such scandals from happening again, and tragically, the recommendations included heavy regulation for the press. The rules go way overboard if you believe in freedom of the press, and really seem more designed to prevent rich and famous people from being embarrassed by the press, rather than stop egregious ethics violations.

So, here’s the problem. The defamation reform package was moving forward nicely, when some politicians decided to basically lump a “Leveson Amendment” onto the bill, so that the UK is now faced with an unfortunate tradeoff. They could fix the broken defamation laws, but would have to do so at the cost of giving up basic press freedoms. It’s unfortunate that UK politicians, apparently led by David Puttnam, have put others in the position of having to make that kind of ridiculous tradeoff. A functioning democracy that believes in free expression should support both a very limited defamation law and protections for a free press. Asking people to trade one for the other is really quite a travesty.

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Comments on “UK Politicians Offer An Awful Bargain: Give Up Free Press If You Want Defamation Reform”

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Anthony says:

Plans are afoot...

As an extra piece of info on this, moves are afoot to have the bill brought back to parliament to remove the idiotic amendments that some stupid peers have added.

I don’t know which peers it was that added these farcical amendments, but they will get a letter from me when I find out to ascertain exactly what their true parentage is. I rather suspect they’ve been eating too much horse meat containing ‘bute’. But that’s just IMHO.

It’s times like this we could quite happily get rid of the house of so-called lords.

Duke (profile) says:

Re: Plans are afoot...

Are you kidding, most of the amendments added are awesome; including a “serious financial harm” test for corporations – something the defamation lobby groups have been asking for for a while, and which the Government was too cowardly to include (and which the House of Commons was too spineless to introduce themselves).

What this particular amendment does isn’t that controversial either (legally); merely allowing judges to take into account whether or not parties have been to an appropriate arbitrator before coming to court… but the tabloids really hate the idea of this (mainly because it would make it easier for ordinary people to complain when they’re defamed).

anonymouse says:

a problem!!

I have been one of millions who have had pain that was consistent for 20 odd years relived within 6 weeks never to return, pain that many have in the lower back, pain that many suffer from every day, where doctors and specialists do not have a clue how to cure other than giving pain medication which just covers over the symptoms of a bigger problem.

I was advised my hips were uneven and that this was putting pressure on a part of my spinal column and that was the cause of the pain. I was advised that after a few manipulations my hips would be aligned correctly and after 6 weeks i was relieved of serious pain, hopefully forever…it has been 17 years so far.

Now when people attack the chiropractors as being nothing more than a false service where they do not actually do anything i get upset, so in this argument i side with those that want to bring libel action.

Yes a lot of things in life are hard to believe and a lot of people fight to prove others wrong, but seriously to allow people to dismiss a true cure to problems people have every day based on lies, that is a cause for liable claims.

I know the whole system needs to be overhauled as some people use the system just to make others look bad but the fact that the chiropractors had to back down because of bad press makes me sad.Those responsible should be made to pay in some way for their lies, it is affecting people who could be using a service that really helps.

Lurk-a-lot (profile) says:

Re: a problem!!

Chiropractors make a series of claims – they should be able to back them up with scientific studies, and they can’t/won’t. Seriously though, with the metaphysical babble that the treatments are based on, and the requirement to actually produce evidence, I can’t see that ever happening.

There is apparently a consensus that Chiropractic treatment of lower back pain may assist in relieving lower back pain (such as you describe), but there is no such consensus for any other Chiropractic treatments.

So IMO, beyond treatments for lower back pain, they should either back up their claims, or STFU.

Ninja (profile) says:

Re: a problem!!

I see your point and I have used chiropractic methods to fix my back a few months ago (I had an accident that hurt my muscles and after I treated the muscle issue I was left with a postural issue). It works. And there are even doctors recommending such type of treatment. However I don’t think this is the point here.

The chiropractors could have dealt with the critics with sensible, well-based studies instead of relying on broad and broken laws and sue.

G Thompson (profile) says:

Re: Re: a problem!!

There were no scientific studies to back up there claims on being able to treat non neuromusculoskeletal disorders ie: colic, infant & adult deafness, heart problems to name a few.

In fact the scientific studies debunked them and they were mislerading the public vis a vis their web site claims. They tried to sue Simon over an article he wrote about a paper that actually debunked them and he had the audacity (so they claimed) to state that they were making ‘bogus’ claims.

Guess what! They were bogus.. Absolutely unequivocally Bogus and proven to be then and still to this day. But strangely the BCA still has a bug up its collective arse about that word and threatens to sue anyone still who uses it in conjunction with chiropractic usage.. Especially anyone not in the USA ..

ooooh – hellooooooo BCA, I’m in Australia.. come at me!

G Thompson (profile) says:

Re: a problem!!

Just because a chiropractor might have fixed your back does not mean that it is in any way shape or form a science and like any other form of quackery (homoeopathy springs to mind) it can not make wild accusations of being able to ‘cure’ something when the actual statistics and science states otherwise.

I’m glad you haven’t been in pain for more than 17yrs, though maybe…just maybe (and the science is more confirmatory on this than the Chiropractic theory) it could of been a placebo fix. We will most likely never know

Though the placebo effect is even more convincing when you understand that one of the basic tenets/philosophies of chiropractic is a thing called ‘Vitality’ which suggests that “all living organisms are sustained by a vital force that is both different from, and greater than, physical and chemical forces”. Also referred to as vis medicatrix naturae (healing power of nature) ie: Placebo Effect

Each to there own I guess!

nospacesorspecialcharacters (profile) says:

Free Speech is just not very British

Changing libel law in the UK is going be as difficult as repealing the 2nd amendment in the US.

Much like the US constitution is built upon a culture of personal freedoms, UK libel law has grown out of a culture based upon status and pomp.

It is vastly more important in the average English mindset to be seen to right/upstanding/moral, than to be right/upstanding/moral. That goes for middle-class housewives all the way up to the Royal Family (although some would argue Prince Harry is doing his best to countermine that).

English people are worshipful – they love to worship. Where this used to be concentrated on religion, since the enlightenment this has gradually shifted towards worship of D-list celebrities, footballers and the like – who’ve basically become modern day royalty. Whereas the modern day royalty are treated more and more like their celebrity counterparts.

This causes an odd sort of backlash if you dare to criticize a celebrity for wanting to be like a “normal” person despite their whole status built upon standing out and being different. There are people who will defend the Queen and royal family as hard-working and deserving of having normal lives and privacy – despite their very special status.

Ask a typical English man on the street if people should be allowed to say something critical about the UK and be allowed to live in the UK and still claim benefits and the answer will be a flat out “No”. The free-speech stuff doesn’t even come up.

British newspapers – particularly The Sun and The Daily Mail – have actually brought this on themselves as they will usually be the first to decry the “free speech” of undesirable people like Abu Hamza.

Justice at last! Hate preacher Abu Hamza facing life in a U.S. prison on terrorism charges after final extradition appeal fails
See you later, Britain hater

Few in the UK will be outraged at someone being extradited for preaching hate. They will applaud it and ask why it took so long. No one considers this is a free-speech issue.

It’s the same reason football fans attacked Imogen Thomas for her part in an affair with a famous married footballer – who used a super-injunction to silence her. No outrage over the super-injunction – instead outrage over the fact she might damage his career.

Most English people don’t care about free speech. They see it as a novel American concept. They care more about not hurting peoples feelings, and if people have to be silenced in order not to hurt peoples feelings then by golly we should silence them.

Duke (profile) says:

Slightly exaggerating the situation...

The amendment isn’t nearly as bad as some people are suggesting it is; it establishes a “Commission” to recognise “Independent Regulatory Boards” who can offer arbitration services to people over defamation claims. Nothing too controversial so far…

The amendment then gives courts the power to take into account whether or not parties in a defamation case went to a relevant arbitration service, and lower/raise damages or costs awards if appropriate.

Again, not particularly controversial (the Courts are already allowed to take into account a party’s unwillingness to negotiate/arbitrate where doing so would be reasonable).

But the tabloid press really hate the idea of this, because it would make it significantly easier for people to complain to them when they defame ordinary people (as it is the huge costs of litigation that put most people off).

The other major amendment the Lords added was one that requires companies (and some other non-natural legal persons) to get permission from the court before bringing a claim, and could only get permission if they could show they had suffered, or were likely to suffer “substantial financial loss.” Again, something a lot of big corporate lobby groups really don’t like.

So… the Government is under quite a bit of pressure to get rid of these amendments, and as they never really cared about libel reform in the first place, are happy to lose the bill.

That said, despite having worked on this for a few years, I’m not too bothered about losing it; while the Lords did add some nice stuff, the Bill itself is still fairly terrible – there isn’t much in it that is of any good, and there are some fairly nasty bits relating to the Internet (or rather, “websites”, because the people who drafted it didn’t know the difference between the two).

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