Newcastle’s MP Paul Farrelly welcomed today’s passage of the Defamation Bill as a long overdue overhaul of the country’s draconian libel laws, and one that will protect academic freedoms, human rights campaigners and responsible press reporting in the public interest.
Agreement was finally reached today, before the end of the parliamentary session, ending to-ing and fro-ing between the Commons and the Lords after the government agreed to introduce a compromise allowing companies to sue for libel only if they could prove ‘substantial financial loss’.
The new provision, dubbed by campaigners as the ‘Tesco clause’, will hopefully make it harder for big corporations to frighten off legitimate, investigative reporting with the threat of multi-million pound law suits.
It was the supermarket giant’s action against the Guardian newspaper in 2008, which played a key role in persuading the House of Commons’ Culture, Media & Sport Select Committee – on which Mr Farrelly sits - to look at libel reform in an investigation starting in 2008.
Many of the measures in the new Bill were included in the Committee’s 2010 report Press Standards, Privacy and Libel, published just before the last general election.
A key role in the changes was also played by the Libel Reform Campaign, which brought together free speech pressure groups Index on Censorship, English PEN and Sense about Science and persuaded the three main parties to include libel reform in their manifestos.
The Bill brings in a stronger public interest defence, updates the law for the internet and introduces protections for peer-reviewed scientific publications and academic conferences.
The final change, raising the bar for companies suing for libel at all, however, was the biggest since the Bill finally started its passage last year. It came after a climb-down by the government in the Lords after it resisted wider amendments in the Commons last week.
Speaking in that debate in the House of Commons last Tuesday, Mr Farrelly argued that the ‘chilling effect’ of current libel law had left it wide open to abuse.
Referring to the Guardian’s examination of Tesco’s tax affairs in 2008, Mr Farrelly said the newspaper had put its hand up to an innocent mistake in its reporting, though the overall thrust of the article was true.
‘The Guardian, as any newspaper would, apologised, made a clarification and offers of amends and ensured that it used all the procedures of the law, as set down the last time this House looked at reform of libel law, but Tesco was just not interested.’
‘The reason Tesco turned everything down, stalled for time and racked up the costs was not just because it could, but because it, like so many corporations, wanted to chill. It wanted to take the newspaper and its journalists out of the game. It wanted to send a message.’
Another notable abuse, highlighted by MPs throughout the Bill’s passage, were libel actions brought by US medical firm NMT against Dr Peter Wilmshurst - a consultant cardiologist at the Royal Shrewsbury Hospital and the University Hospital of North Staffordshire.
Dr Wilmshurst had raised concerns at an academic conference in the US about a cardiac device marketed by NMT, which were reported on a Canadian medical website. NMT was still allowed to sue in the UK, however, but eventually went bust after causing years of grief and expense to the cardiologist and his family.
In the Commons debate, responding to the concerns raised by Mr Farrelly, other MPs and the Libel Reform Campaign, Justice Minister Helen Grant said the government had had a change of heart and would find a compromise over companies before the Bill became law.
After today’s passage of the Bill, Mr Farrelly, a former investigative journalist, said:
‘This overhaul is long overdue. It’s the culmination of a long campaign and is a case of Parliament legislating for the freedom of the press, not against the press.’
‘It is now up to the media to use those freedoms responsibly and agree to set up an independent regulator, backed by the recently agreed Royal Charter, to safeguard standards in an industry which is vital to proper democracy.’