Freedom of expression groups Index on Censorship (IOC) and English PEN's 'Free Speech is Not For Sale' report has recommended 10 reforms for current English libel legislation, which they propose should be included in a new Libel bill.
The report, which assessed the impact of English libel law on freedom of expression in the UK and internationally, addressed the high cost of libel cases for defendants, increased by the much-criticised CFAs [conditional fee arrangements] and success fees in such cases; libel tourism; and the impact of online publishing.
In the report the groups said a new bill would 'simplify the existing law, restore the balance between free speech and the protection of reputation, and reflect the impact of the internet on the circulation of ideas and information'.
[Jump to the 10 recommendations from English PEN and IOC]
One of the report's biggest concerns was that current legislation does not reflect the arrival of the internet.
"English libel law is two communication revolutions out of date. We are now in the 21st century with a law which has some parts in the 1850s and some in the 13th century - we have to haul it into the 21st century," said Jonathan Heawood, director of English PEN, at an event launching today's report.
The internet has exported English libel legislation around the world, encouraging individuals from outside the UK to pursue libel actions in English courts, added IOC director Jo Glanville.
Speaking at the event, Geoffrey Robertson QC said prevention against libel tourism to the UK was needed: "Britain needs to stop becoming a libel 'globocop' and stop letting people drag their cases here to sue in British courts."
Libel legislation should not treat online publication in the same way as newspaper publication, added Glanville. Forum and article comments from users must be taken into consideration, while a single publication rule, where accessing an online version of an article would not count as republication of a libel, should be introduced, she said.
Journalists in the audience cited instances where existing libel legislation in England had had a 'chilling effect' on their reporting, including moves to pre-empt libel actions before publication by removing names of individuals and companies.
Investigative journalist and freedom of information campaigner Heather Brooke spoke of the threat of current legislation to investigative journalism, as realised by new venture the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ).
"We find that we have no outlets any more for two reasons: partly the economy but also be cause of libel," said Brooke.
"All the work that we [the BIJ] will do, in order to protect ourselves, we will not be allowed to publish. We will have to outsource it to another bigger publication, who will then take on the risk."
But, media commentator Roy Greenslade and Robertson both argued that the media must take responsibility for leading reform of libel law.
Next steps for the report
The groups hope the report will stiffen the resolve of the current parliamentary select committee on press standards, privacy and libel, said Ken Macdonald QC, former director of public prosecutions, at the launch.
Both organisations conceded that the backing of MPs would be needed to push their recommendations further.
But Tracey Brown, managing director of Sense About Science, which has been running the 'Keep Libel Laws out of Science' campaign, added that now was 'a unique opportunity' to push libel reform up the political agenda, as all UK political parties are currently writing their manifestos.
A full copy of the report can be downloaded from a new website launched for the campaign, www.libelreform.org.
The 10 reforms proposed by IOC and English PEN:
- "In libel, the defendant is guilty until proven innocent. We recommend: require the claimant to demonstrate damage and falsity.
- "English libel law is more about making money than saving a reputation. We recommend: cap damages at £10,000.
- "The definition of 'publication' defies common sense. We recommend: abolish the Duke of Brunswick rule and introduce a single publication rule.
- "London has become an international libel tribunal. We recommend: no case should be heard in this jurisdiction unless at least 10 per cent of copies of the relevant publication have been circulated here.
- "There are few viable alternatives to a full trial. We recommend: establish a libel tribunal as a low-cost forum for hearings.
- "There is no robust public interest defence in libel law. We recommend strengthen the public interest defence.
- "Comment is not free. We recommend: expand the definition of fair comment.
- "The potential cost of defending libel action is prohibitive. We recommend: cap base costs and make success fees and 'After the Event' (ATE) insurance premiums non-recoverable.
- "The law does not reflect the arrival of the internet. We recommend: exempt interactive online services and interactive chat from liability.
- "Not everything deserves a reputation. We recommend: exempt large and medium-sized corporate bodies and associations from libel law unless they can prove malicious falsehood."