Wednesday 24 February 2010

Culture Committtee MPs urge libel law reform

Good to hear Culture Committee chairman John Whittingdale on BBC Radio 4's Today programme this morning talking about "overwhelming evidence of the chilling effect" of  the defamation laws and the "astronomical costs" of libel actions.
Whittingdale was talking on the day the committee's report on press standards, privacy and libel is published with some of the coverage concentrating on the report's claims that News International  was guilty of "deliberate obfuscation"  and "collective amnesia" over the extent of illegal phone tapping by its journalists.
Naturally the Guardian believes its investigations into the phone-tapping affair is totally vindicated by the report. Whittingdale on Today said he believed illegal phone tapping was no longer a problem at NI and stressed the committee's recommendations on libel laws and reforming the PCC.
The report expresses concern about the use of 'super-injunctions' - and criticises oil company Trafigura for trying to use a super-injunction to prevent the reporting of Commons debate on its dumping of toxic waste - and the huge legal costs of libel actions. It also calls for action to stop foreign litigants coming to the UK to launch libel cases - so called  "libel tourism" - in Britain's courts.
The committee describes the burden for the media in libel cases of proving that allegations are true are "complex, time consuming and expensive". It suggests and says the Government should examine the requirement that defendants, rather than the person making a libel claim , bear the burden of proving the case.
It says there is no justification for lawyers demanding 100% success fees in "no win, no fee" cases.
The report criticises the Press Complaints Commission as 'lacking credibility' and says it should be able to fine rogue papers and ban them from publishing for a day.
The arguments against the PCC being able to fine or suspend newspapers has been that it will lead to newspapers contesting the sanctions by seeking judicial reviews  which would lead to the law and lawyers becoming involved in self-regulation.
It is the recommendations on the reform of the libel laws that will be most widely welcomed in the press. Something on which the Guardian and News International can agree.
You can read the full report here.

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