Lord Lester who is proposing a Defamation Bill which would reform Britain's libel laws tells the Independent today that the way they are presently framed "is the enemy of free speech."
In an interview with Ian Burrell, Lord Lester says: "Evidence clearly shows that the present law of libel has a serious chilling effect on freedom of speech, not only of the press but of any citizen critic, including non-governmental organisations. You need a law which is the friend of free speech and not the enemy of free speech. The present law I think is the enemy of free speech in some respects."
He cites as an example the case of Caroline Workman, a food critic for the Irish News in Belfast, who gave up her career after a court awarded £25,000 damages and £100,000 costs to an Italian restaurant she had reviewed. "She was put in the witness box for four days and really put through the wringer," says Lord Lester, "the damage done to her was catastrophic".
Lord Lester emphasises that the Bill is not just for the media and adds: "I believe the press is the eyes and ears of the public and is a profession, not only a business. But if the press wants to have the defences in my Bill it needs to act professionally."
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.