Monday 20 September 2010

Alan Rusbridger: How libel laws stifle the press

Guardian editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger in the Spectator has written about how the libel laws in Britain stifle the press.

He writes: "It feels wrong, as a journalist, to be letting outsiders into this secret, but it is really quite easy to cover things up in England. If you are determined enough it won’t cost you a penny to buy silence. Nor does it even much matter whether you live in this country: our legal system stands ready to help all-comers. It couldn’t be simpler. You hire a solicitor with a working knowledge of Britain’s libel laws to fire off a fierce letter to whichever journalist has been pestering you. It will be the opening salvo in a process which rapidly threatens to become eye-wateringly expensive.

"If it’s a local paper that may well be all it takes. Most local editors will admit to having quietly shelved stories or investigations, not because they were wrong, but because the paper simply couldn’t afford the cost of fighting an action. Game over.

"Other editors may sit and ponder a bit. They will reflect on how many such actions they have already had to defend — how many hundreds of hours and millions of pounds have gone down the drain. They know the next step: if they publish they can expect your solicitor to send another salvo — this time under a conditional fee arrangement, which will allow him/her to double their hourly charges if they win."

Rusbridger refers to the libel reform Bill proposed by Lord Lester and the Goverrnment's plan to bring in its own reforms. He concludes:"Lester is optimistic that the government will stick to its promise in its May coalition agreement to back libel reform. Let’s hope he’s right. We pride ourselves as the country which invented free speech — Milton, Wilkes, Cobbett and the rest. We’ve been in some danger of losing it."

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