“Five days to save free speech ... Amendments to Libel bill must be killed” screamed the Sun headline last February. Lord Lester had penned an article telling “FREE speech in this country is in grave danger of being stifled by party political gamesmanship”. Amendments to the bill would “wreck” what was “an attempt to reform our out-of-date, repressive libel law”.
Over at the Mail, James Chapman told that the likes of Stephen Fry were battling to save the bill, and that the potential loss of this reform would be down to the rotten lefties. So what was the problem? “Government sources said David Cameron will not allow the legislation to proceed after Labour inserted a series of amendments to try to force the Government’s hand over the Leveson report on media standards”.
So what would this do? Lord Lester was in no doubt: politicians “and the Hacked Off campaign want to use the Bill — which is currently going through Parliament and should be purely about libel reform — to force through a draconian version of Sir Brian Leveson’s proposals”. So, if those amendments were removed, the Mail and Sun would clearly be in favour of this bill.
And no doubt they would defend it against further tampering, especially as it was stressed by both papers that the “Leveson” amendments were all that needed removal. Well, now the bill is indeed being subjected to further tampering, by Tory MP (and, by remarkable coincidence, libel lawyer) Edward Garnier. And Lord Lester is once again deeply concerned.
So where are the Sun and the Mail? To no surprise at all, they aren’t. And one of the amendments Garnier is putting down would effectively render the bill meaningless to those who have campaigned for companies singling out individuals for heavy-handed libel actions to show that they would suffer damage as a result of the comments to which they are taking such exception.
Particularly concerned are those such as Simon Singh, who found himself on the end of a writ from the British Chiropractic Association for doing nothing more than expressing his opinion. He won his case, but it took two years and was a costly business. The idea of a reform to the law including a public interest defence stemmed from cases such as this.
The requirement to show damage is part of that reform. Removing it, while being good for libel lawyers’ business, is effectively maintaining a curb on free speech. But the loudest press voices have fallen silent, because it wouldn’t be a problem for them. Anything that impinged on their right to trample over the public was to be fought, but the rights of those individuals to free speech could go hang.
And then the press wonder why folks don’t trust them. Bunch of hypocrites.