Thursday, 27 May 2010

Lord Steyn: 'Libel law is tilted against the media'

Lord Steyn giving the Boydell Lecture last night said he believed libel law is "tilted against the media" and that he hoped super injunctions gagging the press would be stopped in the future.
He said: "It is (I believe) a fact that very often British newspapers, when sued in libel, give up and settle when one would not expect them to do so. The reasons for this state of affairs are to be found in centuries old strict liability in defamation law. Libel law is tilted against the media."
On super-injunctions which prohibit reporting: "The effect of such injunctions is to outlaw publication of the very fact of an injunction having been granted. Possibly the most notorious is the super injunction granted to the oil traders Trafigura: Guardian, Saturday, 17 October 2009, My understanding is that a high level inquiry will deal with this subject. I hope the result will be that super injunctions will never, or virtually never, be granted."
On the Singh case: "Fortunately there is now, among the senior judiciary, in other respects considerable momentum for substantive improvement of libel law. An enormous advance is the case of Dr Singh who was accused of libel by the British Chiropractic Association over a piece he wrote for the Guardian in April 2008 suggesting that there was a lack of evidence for claims some chiropractors make on certain childhood claims.
In a judgement to which all members of the Court contributed the court observed that asking judges to rule on matters scientific controversy would be ―to invite the court to become an Orwellian ministry of truth."
On the Reynold's defence: "Unfortunately as matters stand, the Reynolds privilege will continue to complicate the task of journalists and editors who wish to explore matters of public interest and it will continue to erode freedom of expression."
You can read Lord Steyn's lecture here.
Liberal Democrat Lord Lester has published a Private Member's Defamation Bill which would reform libel law. It's main points are:
  • Introduce a statutory defence of responsible publication on a matter of public interest;
  • Clarify the defences of justification and fair comment, renamed as ‘truth’ and ‘honest opinion’;
  • Respond to the problems of the internet age, including multiple publications and the responsibility of Internet Service Providers and hosters;
  • Protect those reporting on proceedings in parliament and other issues of public concern;
  • Require claimants to show substantial harm, and corporate bodies to show financial loss;
  • Encourage the speedy settlement of disputes without recourse to costly litigation.

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