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.