Clause 10 — Action against a person who was not the author, editor etc
Oral Answers to Questions — Prime Minister
Robert Flello (Stoke-on-Trent South, Labour)
I beg to move amendment 8, page 8, line 26, leave out from ‘court’
to end of line 28 and insert—
‘(a) is satisfied that it is not reasonably practicable for an action to be brought against the author, editor or publisher;
(b) there is a prima facia case that the statement complained of is defamatory; and
(c) is satisfied that such person did not know that the statement was defamatory until a claim to that effect was made and did not reasonably believe that there was a good defence to any action brought upon it.’.
In Committee I moved a similar amendment—I think it was amendment 16—which sought to weed out, at an early stage, unnecessary cases coming before the courts involving no defamation. Replying to the debate, the then Minister expressed concern about the requirement for a court to determine at an early stage whether a statement was indeed defamatory. I therefore withdrew the amendment in order to reconsider it. Amendment 8 recasts it, requiring simply that a prima facie case should exist. However, it also incorporates more of the concerns raised by the Booksellers Association which I raised in Committee on
The then Minister gave what I felt, and indeed the Booksellers Association felt, was an unsatisfactory response.
The points made by the Booksellers Association are as follows. First, although section 1 of the Defamation Act 1996 is available to booksellers as a defence, it is very much weaker than the common law defence of innocent dissemination which that section replaced. It has been suggested that section 1 was never intended to do what it has done, and that the problem was inadvertently caused by sloppy drafting. In Committee, the then Minister felt that there were differing views on the section and on whether it was weaker than the common law defence. If that is so, it would be helpful to know who feels that it is not weaker than the Booksellers Association and other observers believe it to be.
Secondly, under section 1 booksellers, and indeed other secondary publishers such as newsagents and distributors, lose that protection if they know, or have reason to believe, that a publication contains any defamatory statement. Under the previous defence of innocent dissemination, a defence would have existed if the bookseller had a reasonable belief that the alleged defamatory material was not libellous, having been assured by his or her own lawyers, or by lawyers for the author or publisher, that one or more of the statutory defences applied.
Thirdly, as a result of the elimination of the innocent dissemination defence, a technique known as the sending of “clogging letters” was adopted. A clogging letter was a letter sent by the claimant’s lawyers to a bookseller warning that unless a publication containing the alleged libel was immediately withdrawn from sale, proceedings
would be started against the bookseller. The bookseller invariably had to remove the publication from his shelves, as he did not have the resources with which to defend himself against litigation without the availability of the innocent dissemination defence. The claimant therefore achieved the withdrawal of the publication whether or not he had a proper case, without having to issue any proceedings against the author or publisher or, indeed, the bookseller. That device has been used by a number of vexatious litigants.
Paragraph (c) of amendment 8 is intended to reinstate the defence of innocent dissemination for booksellers. As they have pointed out, if they cannot rely on other defences and are considered to be an easy target, and if clause 10 does not enable the publisher and the other parties to a publication to mount a challenge, a bookseller wants to be able to at least use other defences.
I do not want to detain the House. That is the crux of what I propose, and I look forward to what the Minister has to say.
Peter Bottomley (Worthing West, Conservative)
“a prima facia case that the statement complained of is defamatory”.
I think that is right. People ought to ask themselves whether there is a reasonable probability that the claim will be successful. In criminal cases, people are not brought to court unless there is a 50:50 chance or more of conviction.
We need to go further than the prima facia case, however. The court ought to hold that there is defamation, that it is actionable and that it is likely that a court case would end in success for the claimant. Too many cases are brought that will clearly not be successful when they come to a full hearing. That applies not only to booksellers—the category this amendment specifically addresses—but all the other types of case about which I have been concerned.
Helen Grant (Maidstone and The Weald, Conservative)
Amendment 8 would add two additional hurdles to overcome before a court had jurisdiction to hear a defamation claim against someone who was not a primary publisher. We do not consider this amendment to be appropriate. It would significantly limit the circumstances in which a court would have jurisdiction to hear an action against a person who was not the author, editor or publisher of a defamatory statement. To provide that an action against a secondary publisher can only be brought where it can be proved that the secondary publisher had knowledge that the statement was defamatory and that there was no defence would raise the bar for establishing jurisdiction to a very high level, and would tip the balance too far against the interests of the claimant. It could leave them with no means of restoring their reputation.
In addition, it would be very unusual to require a court to consider the substance of a case at the same time as determining whether to grant jurisdiction for the action to be brought. On that basis, I hope Robert Flello will agree to withdraw his amendment.
Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell, Conservative)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
I am pleased to be here for this Third Reading debate. I thank my two colleagues, the Under-Secretaries of State for Justice, my hon. Friends the Members for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant) and for Kenilworth and Southam (Jeremy Wright), for their role in the debate so far, and for picking up the subject so quickly. We have all been in our jobs for only a few days. I also look forward to sparring with the shadow Secretary of State, Sadiq Khan, in the Chamber over the coming months. I pay tribute to Members for the quality of today’s debate, which has been constructive. These are serious matters and we need to get them right.
The Bill has now proceeded through its scrutiny stages in this House. The issues that it addresses go to the core of what it means to live in a free and open society. The right to speak freely and to debate issues without fear of censure are a vital part of a democratic society. However, that freedom should not be used to damage the reputation of others without regard to the facts. Lives and careers can be destroyed by false allegations that go unanswered. The issue for our defamation laws is ultimately one of striking the right balance between the protection of freedom of expression and the protection of reputation.
The Bill reflects our view that the law is out of kilter, and that our defamation regime is out of date, costly and over-complicated. It needs urgent reform so as to offer more effective protection for freedom of speech and to stop the threat of long and costly libel proceedings being used to stifle responsible investigative reporting and scientific and academic debate. We also need to stop powerful interests overseas with little connection to the United Kingdom using the threat of British libel laws to suppress domestic criticism as part of libel tourism.
Equally, it is vital to ensure that people who have been defamed are not left without effective remedies when their reputation has been seriously harmed. It would not do to move from one extreme to the other, with sensible reform of the law giving too much licence to those who exercise freedom of expression without responsibility. The core aim of the Bill is therefore to ensure that the right balance is achieved, so that free speech is not unjustifiably impeded by actual or threatened libel proceedings, but so, too, that people who have been defamed are able to protect their reputation.
I am grateful to all right hon. and hon. Members who have taken part in the Bill’s scrutiny, not only this afternoon but on Second Reading and in Committee. I welcome the support that has been expressed from all parts of the House, during the debate today and at earlier stages, for the principles underlying the Bill and the need for reform. Inevitably, there are differences of opinion on the detail, many of which have been expressed today.
I would like to use this opportunity to explain again the Government’s approach and our position on a number of key issues. In the light of our core aim, the Bill contains a range of measures aimed at supporting freedom of expression. One of our central objectives has been to ensure that trivial and unfounded actions for defamation do not succeed. Clause 1 therefore provides that, for a statement to be defamatory, it must have caused, or be likely to cause, serious harm to the reputation of the claimant. That test raises the threshold for claims, and represents a higher hurdle than the one that currently applies. This will help to discourage trivial claims, while ensuring that claimants can still take effective action to protect their reputation when it has been seriously harmed.
Other measures through which the Bill bolsters freedom of expression include: a single publication rule, which will mean that a publisher cannot be repeatedly sued for the same material; sensible action to address libel tourism, which has caused considerable harm to this country’s reputation around the world; and greater protection for website operators and for other secondary publishers, such as local booksellers and newsagents.
In addition to those general measures, the Bill takes specific steps to encourage robust scientific and academic debate by creating a new defence against libel for peer-reviewed material in scientific and academic journals, and by extending qualified privilege to reports of scientific and academic conferences. Given the work that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Universities and Science is doing to promote science in this country, the more we can send messages that we value scientific research in this country, the better.
The Bill provides simpler and clearer defences to those accused of defamation, and ensures that they are available outside mainstream media cases. One way in
which that is achieved is through the creation of new statutory defences of honest opinion and truth to replace the existing common-law defences.
Alongside those new defences, the Bill introduces a new statutory defence of responsible publication in the public interest, which is based on the common-law defence that has been developed by the courts, initially in the case of Reynolds v. Times Newspapers, and more recently in cases such as Flood v. Times Newspapers. We recognise the concerns from differing perspectives that have been expressed about the measure, so let me reiterate a point that the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald, made earlier. This ministerial team has come to these issues relatively freshly in the past few days. We are not closed-minded, and the important thing is to get this measure right. Although we did not accept the amendments that were considered today, I want to send a clear message that we are open to continued discussions. We are happy to table Government amendments in the other place if that would be appropriate and prudent to improve the quality of the Bill. I am not saying that we will accept every proposal on the table, but we are open to continuing discussions on the Bill and to making changes so that we try to ensure that we get it absolutely right.
Another focus of debate has been the provisions in clause 5 to deal with responsibility for publications on the internet, which is an aspect of our current regime that is genuinely in need of modernisation. Clause 5 gives a defence to website operators in relation to material posted by users of sites that they host. To maintain the defence, the operators will have to comply with a new procedure aimed at ensuring that complaints can be directed to the authors of the material—that is really important—but there must be protection for operators who are doing the right thing. We have made amendments to clarify a number of points of detail in the clause, and we will be seeking views on regulations to support the new process in due course.
Our approach will stop website operators from being unfairly exposed to liability in defamation proceedings while still encouraging them to behave responsibly. It will help freedom of expression by ensuring that material is not simply taken down without the author having an opportunity to express his or her views, which frequently happens now, but it will still ensure that people who have had their reputation seriously harmed online can take action against the person who is truly responsible, not the intermediary. In tandem with that, clause 10 will ensure that secondary publishers such as booksellers and newsagents are not unfairly targeted and that action is taken against the primary publisher whenever possible.
Let me be clear that while we are determined to protect and enhance freedom of expression, we are also determined to ensure that there is no free-for-all. This is not open season for making defamatory comments with no fear of redress. To ensure that a fair balance is achieved between the interests of claimants and defendants, it is important that effective remedies are available for those who have been defamed, so clause 12 adds to existing remedies by setting out provisions extending the courts’ existing power to order the publication of a summary of its judgment to ensure that, when appropriate, a meaningful public clarification can be given that a story was wrong.
I emphasise again our firm commitment to reducing the cost of defamation proceedings, which has been a barrier to people who have found themselves in problematic situations. Clause 11, which removes the presumption in favour of jury trial, will help with that by enabling key issues such as the meaning of allegedly defamatory material to be decided by a judge at an early stage. Allied with that, we are taking forward work on procedural changes to facilitate the early resolution of key issues, and we will be considering how best to encourage alternative means of resolving disputes, such as mediation, to encourage settlements and prevent unnecessary litigation.
I thank Opposition Members, especially Robert Flello, for the measured way in which the Bill’s proceedings have been conducted. We will not agree about every aspect of the Bill, but such debates are valuable to ensure that we get this important measure right. The Bill’s consideration has been constructive and thorough. We think that the Bill sets out a balanced and fair package of measures that will allow debate on matters of public importance to thrive. We are open to continued debate and dialogue in the other place to ensure that we get the Bill right but, above all, we must make sure that we provide appropriate remedies for those who have been defamed.
Sadiq Khan (Tooting, Labour)
First, I take the opportunity to congratulate and welcome the entire Front-Bench Justice team to their new roles; I wish them well. I also welcome the Justice Secretary to the Dispatch Box for his first outing in his new office. I congratulate him on his well deserved promotion to the Cabinet and look forward to working with him in those areas where we have shared objectives, such as the updating of our outdated defamation laws. I agree with much of what he said and the tenor of his speech on Third Reading.
Many people have played a role in getting the Bill to this stage and I thank all those who have been involved in its long passage: the Libel Reform Campaign, whose members have shown dedication and passion in rightly pushing Parliament to modernise our outdated defamation laws; the working group established under the previous Government by my right hon. Friend Mr Straw; the Joint Committee of both Houses that scrutinised the draft Bill; and all those who participated in the Second Reading debate and Committee stage, including all the former Ministers.
We welcome much of the Bill—a single publication rule, measures to protect foreign defendants from actions brought in this country, clarification of and improvement to the defence of honest opinion, and additional protection for a limited number of scientific and academic publications—so let me say straightaway that, despite being hugely disappointed with the Government’s approach in Committee, when they failed to take on board our concerns and those of experts, and their approach to some of the issues raised on Report, we will not oppose Third Reading. We have high hopes that the new team and those in the other place will revise and improve the Bill.
We firmly support the principle of modernising our out-of-date defamation law—indeed, we set the whole process in train when in government. This Bill is the
vehicle to bring our defamation law into the 21st century, making it fairer, simpler and cheaper so that public debate is encouraged, not stifled. Our emotional attachment to the Bill is therefore strong. That said, as it stands the Bill is a wasted opportunity. Blue moons come around more often than defamation reform: the most recent reform took place in 1996, and the one before that in 1952—even the Justice Secretary’s predecessor was not in Parliament then—so we should not expect the next opportunity to arise soon. We need to take full advantage of this window. Furthermore, there is political consensus: all three main political parties called for an update of our defamation law in our election manifesto. The absence of major policy differences should allow us to focus our energy on getting the Bill right and make the most of an infrequent opportunity. That is why we are so disappointed: we have not grasped that opportunity.
The Bill has reached Third Reading without any major improvements or changes since it was first published back in May. The Joint Committee did some excellent work, and its members must be tearing their hair out because most of their hard work has been wasted. The Bill is deficient in several respects: it makes no specific provision on corporations bringing defamation proceedings; it deals inadequately with the treatment of website operators; and there is no definition of serious harm. To add insult to injury—or perhaps I should say injury to insult—the Bill risks making matters worse by codifying an earlier version of the Reynolds defence of responsible publication.
We have other concerns. The Bill fails to provide a new and effective public interest defence. The Government still want to rely on regulations to sort out the mess that is clause 5, but despite more than four months having elapsed since the Bill was first published, no regulations or draft regulations have been seen. No effort has been made to address the issue of costs or judicial case management. What is the point of reforming the law if, at the same time, we take away the ability of the ordinary citizen to use it or of the courts to prevent it from being abused?
As you know, Mr Speaker, I am an optimist. This week, we have seen evidence to encourage my optimism. On Monday, the new-look justice team showed their willingness to recognise the errors of their predecessors by withdrawing the statutory instrument that would have resulted in deep cuts in compensation for victims of crime. Perhaps that was the first indication of a new approach—a Department with completely new Ministers that is not afraid to accept that it got things wrong in the past. The Justice Secretary said that his new team do not have a closed mind on clause 4. I hope that they do not have a closed mind on the rest of the Bill either.
I accept that two major U-turns in a week may be one too many. I accept that there has not been sufficient time over the past week to look at all the mistakes by the team’s predecessors over the past 28 months, but if this is indeed a new approach by the Ministry of Justice, I hope that it might be applied to the Bill in the other place. I am happy to work with Ministers to that end. Not for the first time, we look to the other place to address the shortcomings of a Bill leaving the Commons.
David Morris (Morecambe and Lunesdale, Conservative)
This is an important debate, and it is a privilege to have been able to follow the Bill from its early stages in Committee to Third Reading. I thank the many journalists and eminent lawyers, both practising and in academia, who have given me their valuable contributions along the way, as well as the benefit of their knowledge and expertise in this area.
Media law is a dynamic area of the law. Indeed, Lord Justice Leveson is due to report in the coming weeks on press ethics. Today we have seen the damage that the media can do. Earlier this afternoon, the Prime Minister made a statement to the House and informed right hon. and hon. Members that the headlines in The Sun in 1989 about Hillsborough were untrue. I am pleased that the then editor, Kelvin MacKenzie, has now issued an apology. It is my opinion that such comments should never have been made in the first place.
I have said previously in the House that reforming the law of defamation is of paramount importance. In fact, I was asked during the summer why the Defamation Bill was proceeding through this House, and I said that the law of defamation was case-driven. Indeed the definition of defamation is to be found in the 1936 case of Sim v. Stretch, in which Lord Atkin said:
“Would the words tend to lower the plaintiff in the estimation of right-thinking members of society generally?”
If a judge is to interpret the will of Parliament, I think it only fair that we update the existing statute to reflect the will of Parliament, particularly given the emergence of the internet and social networking.
I am somewhat surprised that Lord Atkins’s definition of defamation has never been placed on a statutory footing, although I suspect lawyers would argue that that definition is well settled. The purpose of the Bill is not to have a chilling effect on the freedom of speech; it is about encouraging academics to publish their work without fear of defamation actions, and allowing journalists and broadcasters to report, as long as they do so in a responsible manner.
The Bill is about responsible publication, not about chilling publication. I made the point in Committee that images should be brought into the scope of the Bill. I am pleased that I have received confirmation that they are within its scope, as has been the case for some time in common law, namely in the case of Tolley v. J.S. Fry and Sons. Additionally, I have read the words of Lord Bridge in the Charleston case and recognise the important distinction, which he highlighted, that articles should be read as a whole. If a reader glances at a photograph and draws a conclusion, that does not make them a fair-minded reader.
I have previously stated in the House that I am an opponent of so-called libel tourism. For many years, libel tourism has been a burden on our civil legal system. Media lawyer Ursula Smartt said that
“in September 2010 the Daily Telegraph reported that libel challenges by actors and celebrities in the London courts had trebled over the past year.”
London has been described as the libel capital of the world. At the simplest level, libel tourism takes place when foreign citizens conduct actions against foreign
citizens in British courts. Perhaps libel tourism is a result of the extraordinarily high damages that are often awarded. I am pleased that the Bill will make it difficult for litigants not based in the UK to bring actions to our courts. I am pleased that clause 4 incorporates the so-called Reynolds defence—a very useful defence that encourages investigative-style journalism. It is important as part of our democratic process that politicians and those who hold public office are held to account.
Simon Hughes suggested that post-Leveson we might have to legislate in some of these areas if Lord Leveson recommends such new legislation. However, I will not presume to second-guess Lord Justice Leveson, and I await his report with interest.
Denis MacShane (Rotherham, Labour)
This is a welcome Bill. I welcome the constructive approach of the new Secretary of State and his team and congratulate them on their appointments. The Bill will now go to another place, where we are rather more well provided with learned friends, the lawyers, who may have some thoughts on how it might have to be amended.
“Do we not need a small claims court for libel cases which could quickly…at a low cost in damages and expenses deliver remedial justice, apology and correction?”—[Hansard, 29 March 2011; Vol. 526, c. 161.]
I very much hoped that this Bill would satisfy that request, but to be honest, it does not. It tidies up many of the problems to do with libel tourism and scientific publication that have caused a great deal of concern and brought together a big coalition of different campaigners who have influenced all parties. However, that does not allow the small person—what one patronisingly calls “the little man”—to have the quick, swift redress that exists in other countries when he has suffered a clear wrong in a newspaper. That is why the parallel work of Lord Leveson must be taken into consideration in the other place and when the Bill comes back here so that we have a complete package of reform that puts right many of the injustices that so many people have faced at the hands of a mixture of very powerful media oligarchs and legal oligarchs.
I want particularly to refer to the problem of libel tourism. Right now, there is an ongoing case initiated by a Mr Pavel Karpov, who is a 35-year-old Interior Ministry employee in Russia. He was involved in the sequence of events that led to the death of Sergei Magnitsky, which has attracted much attention in this House. Through a unanimous resolution of the House of Commons, it has been decided that he and 59 other named Russian officials should not be allowed to enter Britain, although the Foreign Office and the Home Office are still equivocating on that. On
Denis MacShane (Rotherham, Labour)
No, Sir, they are not. They are just filed at the moment and can be discussed. No charges have been initiated.
Such cases are a prime example of libel tourism. One of President Putin’s chief functionaries still thinks that he can get away with libel tourism in this country. I hope that someone in the Russian embassy reads this Bill and understands that that kind of libel tourism is no longer acceptable.
Peter Bottomley (Worthing West, Conservative)
You, Mr Speaker, and the right hon. Gentleman may remember that when we debated the Sergei Magnitsky case and the scandalous way he had been treated, an offer was made in public that the Russian ambassador might like to have a discussion with Members of Parliament. Will the right hon. Gentleman join me in extending that invitation to the Russian ambassador?
Denis MacShane (Rotherham, Labour)
I will freely do so. I do not want to drag this debate into the Magnitsky affair, but it is remarkable that, around the world, people think London is still a town called Sue. Pavel Karpov is a $600-a-month state functionary, employed in Russia, who is hiring the most expensive lawyers, QCs and solicitors, and who has even hired a public relations company called PHA Media, which is run by Mr Phil Hall, a former editor of News of the World, to manage his campaign. I hope that the Karpov case will be the first to fall as a result of tonight’s Third Reading, which will go through unanimously.
When the Bill is debated in the other place, I hope that changes will be made to it to help the small man. Much of the Bill—I do not have time to go through the details—remains an absolute paradise for lawyers. The very first clause states that a statement is not defamatory unless it
“has caused or is likely to cause serious harm to the reputation of the claimant.”
Occasionally I read comments about you, Mr Speaker. I do not know whether they cause serious harm and I certainly do not think that you would wish to comment on whether they do, but you would have to shell out six times your salary to pay m’learned friends as they debated whether it did. Even the first clause, therefore, opens the door for more money to flow into the coffers of our undoubtedly underpaid legal fraternity.
It is good that we have debated the Bill and that the Government are prepared to co-operate. I agree with my right hon. Friend Sadiq Khan that the Bill is seriously flawed and hope that it will be re-examined in the other place and brought back here in a more helpful condition, and that, together with Leveson and, possibly, privacy legislation, we can produce a panoply of laws for our nation that will ensure for decades to come that this is a country not
only where good journalism flourishes, but where people cannot be unfairly traduced by things said and printed about them.
Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell, Conservative)
I am not sure whether this is the appropriate time, but I am sure that the whole House would like to join me in congratulating my hon. and learned Friend on his knighthood.
Edward Garnier (Harborough, Conservative)
In parenthesis to what I was saying about the right hon. Member for Rotherham, I thank my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice for his kind remarks and congratulate him on his new position. I congratulated the new Under-Secretaries of State, my hon. Friends the Members for Kenilworth and Southam (Jeremy Wright) and for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant) earlier this afternoon. If my right hon. Friend maintains the tone that he adopted during his speech, this Bill will not only be improved, but markedly so. I am grateful for the stance that he took, which was in marked contrast to that taken by the right hon. Member for Rotherham, who thought it amusing, no doubt, to make personal remarks about others who cannot protect themselves here; but let us leave that there.
I also thank Sadiq Khan, the shadow Secretary of State for his words and the approach that he and his Front-Bench team will take as the Bill goes to the other place. There is now an opportunity to develop a new defamation Act that will meet some apparent needs, such as how the law is applied and libels dealt with in relation to the internet. It is time to deal with such things.
I have noted on my copy of the Bill something that my hon. Friend Sir Peter Bottomley said earlier about clause 1. As drafted, the clause confuses what is defamatory and the consequences of a defamatory statement. I hope that by the time the Bill becomes an Act, the clause will read: “A defamatory statement is not actionable unless its publication has caused, or is likely to cause, serious harm to the reputation of the claimant”. Many things are defamatory that might not cause much damage, and many things are not very defamatory but can cause disproportionate damage. The wording that my hon. Friend and I have coincidently come up with deals with that point. I dare say that others will think more carefully about that as the Bill moves forward.
On the issue of truth and honest opinion, the way the Bill is constructed is sensible. In my opinion, the law did not need changing but, if it is to be changed, clauses 2 and 3 deal with it.
I have said what I had to say about clause 4 and the Reynolds defence. I want briefly to talk about clause 6. There has been a huge amount of campaigning from various groups, such as PEN, Sense about Science and so forth, largely based on the case of the chiropractors against Simon Singh. I will not go into the facts of the case. Much of it was misunderstood, but the nub of the case was this: did the words complained about constitute
allegations of fact or comment? That does not matter, because the argument and the campaign decided that academic criticism should almost be free from the law of libel.
Once we have got over that concern, we need to think more carefully about whether learned societies, which are not corporate bodies or profit-making companies, should have a right to sue in damages. We no longer allow local authorities to sue for damage to their governing reputation. Thirty five years ago, I used to get injunctions, for goodness’ sake, on behalf of local authorities, as corporate bodies that felt that they had been defamed by the local paper. Looking back, it is ridiculous to think that the Derbyshire county council case was not decided earlier, but it was not. For some decades now, it has not been possible for local authorities to sue in defamation. I rather suspect that the royal college of this, that or the other should not be allowed to sue either, although I must distinguish between that and the right of presidents and other officers of those associations to bring a personal action, if they are defamed.
Peter Bottomley (Worthing West, Conservative)
There is one obvious problem with putting into statute things decided by judges and juries, which is common law. Would such a judgment be possible were the Bill to become law? Would the judges—juries would not be involved—be able to make a decision saying that a body corporate, whether charitable, non-profit or commercial, would be barred from taking out an action, even if it had more merit than the ludicrous one of the chiropractors against Simon Singh?
Edward Garnier (Harborough, Conservative)
Yes, especially for free.
The Derbyshire county council case was a development of the common law. The judges decided that it was no longer appropriate for a local authority to bring an action for damages in defamation. As it happened, it was against our right hon. Friend Lord Tebbit—but I am sure that that had no influence on the judges. As I understand it, nothing in the Bill has any bearing on whether the Court of Appeal or Supreme Court can reach a similar decision based on argument in respect of a learned society. Since we have a Bill and if we are to do that, however, we might as well think about it between now and October or November—whenever the Bill moves to the other place—and deal with it in legislation, not least because the issue is hot and strong following the Simon Singh case.
The Bill has good intentions and contains some good, defensible and sensible clauses. It also probably promises more than it can deliver, particularly in relation to libel tourism. I disagree with the right hon. Member for Rotherham about its being a bad thing that people want to come to London to litigate. Nobody seemed to complain the other day when Abramovich sued Berezovsky were in this jurisdiction. That demonstrates that in the United Kingdom people can find uncorrupted judges who will deal fairly with difficult cases. If foreigners want to sue other foreigners in our courts, I see no problem with that. Before the right hon. Gentleman rises again to defame others under the cloak of absolute
privilege, he might consider that if the courts find that there is no real connection between the litigants and the jurisdiction, they can strike out the claim under the Spiliada principles, with which I am sure he is familiar. They essentially mean that that court is not the appropriate forum in which to bring an action.
Denis MacShane (Rotherham, Labour)
The concept of forum non conveniens—I think that is the Latin phrase—is quite well known. An employee of the Russian state has been accused in this House by a Commons resolution of being linked to the murder of someone employed by a British firm. He earns $600 a month but is hiring the most expensive QC, lawyer and media company to sue a British citizen in connection with a huge international scandal. This week, the United Congress will pass its “Justice for Magnitsky Act”, banning Mr Karpov and 59 other named people. That has nothing to do with protecting reputation; it is a cynical abuse of London’s reputation in which any lawyer can be brought to defend anybody on any cause.
Edward Garnier (Harborough, Conservative)
I do not want to descend into the right hon. Gentleman’s difficulties with lawyers and he will have to sort out his own problems. If the courts find that the claimant referred to by the right hon. Gentleman has no proper basis for bringing a case in this country, they will knock the case out. That applies to contract, privacy, defamation and any other cause of action. I am looking for a proper assessment of the dangers and damage that could be caused to our integrity as a jurisdiction by the use of our courts by overseas litigants. I think such danger is wildly exaggerated and that the ability of our courts to discipline those hopeless cases is underestimated, so I hope we can deal with the issue in a calm and sensible way between now and Third Reading in the other place.
I wish the Bill well as far as it goes. I hope that tonight’s proceedings are not controversial and that we do not have a Division, as that would be unnecessary and unhelpful. I look forward to listening to or reading the debates in the other place, and trust that when the Bill is returned to this House—if it is returned—it will be improved. Surely that is what we expect of the parliamentary process. This is not a politically controversial piece of legislation; it is deeply technical and, some would say, rather tedious. I wish the Bill well, however, and I repeat my congratulations to the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice and his two colleagues.
Paul Farrelly (Newcastle-under-Lyme, Labour)
I, too, welcome the new Secretary of State, but I do not want to forget the outgoing Secretary of State, the long-lasting, right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), who ensured that the Government found time for the Bill in their manifesto commitments. I am sure that all Labour Members wish him well in his new roving role. We hope that he ruffles feathers across the Government in his inimitable way.
The Bill is welcome and has much to commend it, including giving scientific and medical communities protection from abuse of our libel laws in order to stifle debate and proper investigation. When our libel laws have been used and abused in the past, it was often by large corporations. The action brought by Tesco four years ago against The Guardian was perhaps the starkest case in recent times of an inequality of arms. The main ambition of the determinant litigant was not really to settle, but expensively to bog down the newspaper and its journalists for as long as possible, as a warning to it and others in the future.
The Bill does not address corporation suing, and we have heard from Mr Garnier about some of the anomalies regarding who can and cannot sue. I hope that those issues will be looked at afresh when the Bill proceeds to the other place.
The Bill does not include an explicit early strike-out clause to ensure that actions with no merit, that are designed to chill and intimidate at maximum cost, do not proceed. The devil is in the detail of how the courts operate. It is therefore a shame that we do not have the changes to the civil procedure rules that we need to give effect to many of the intentions of the Bill, as the Joint Committee on the draft Bill recommended.
We have discussed conditional fee agreements. As I have said throughout years of trying to bring about sensible libel reform, including via a long inquiry by the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, of which I am a member, it was never intended that success fees should be abolished in their entirety. Given the behaviour of some parts of our press, there is a real problem with access to justice, and reputations are unfairly ruined. I hope their lordships and the House return to that.
As the Bill proceeds, we might have the benefit of Lord Justice Leveson’s detailed thoughts on other issues, such as on a low-cost body or tribunal to settle libel disputes quickly and more cheaply, and on how the Bill might be amended to incentivise the use of such a forum.
Finally, I should like to thank everyone who has helped to inform the debate and me, including the Libel Reform Campaign, Index on Censorship, Sense about Science and English PEN. I also thank a small group of serious, superbly professional journalists and progressive lawyers who work at the coal face and who have given me and other hon. Members invaluable comments and insights. The lawyers include Hugh Tomlinson and Heather Rogers QC, Tamsin Allen of Bindmans LLP, Mark Thomson of Atkins Thomson, Robin Shaw of Davenport Lyons, and Michael Nathanson of Thrings, who represents booksellers. The journalists who have been helpful to me include David Leigh of The Guardian, and my former colleague on The Observer—the doyen of investigative journalism, if I might call him that—the legendary Michael Gillard Senior, who has done so much to advance the cause of responsible investigative journalism in this country over many years.
I also thank the ministerial team for the way in which the debate has been conducted, my hon. Friend Robert Flello and my right hon. Friend Sadiq Khan, and Mr Djanogly for all the work he put into the Bill.
I welcome the assurances that the new team have given on their open mind. I hope their lordships seize on that assurance, because the test of the Bill is whether the abuses that hon. Members have highlighted can happen again. If they can, we need to return to the nitty-gritty and ensure that they cannot.
Simon Hughes (Bermondsey and Old Southwark, Liberal Democrat)
I join hon. Members in thanking the outgoing ministerial team and the former Secretary of State for Justice for their collaboration and work; I congratulate them on that. I also congratulate the new team on their appointment, particularly the new Secretary of State, whom we very much welcome to his responsibilities. As the shadow Secretary of State said, the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats and the Labour party went into the last election with a commitment to reform defamation and libel law. That commitment was satisfactorily reaffirmed in the coalition agreement. There is consensus that the one thing we must deliver this Session is reformed libel law along the lines of the Bill. We have made good progress, but there is general agreement that we are not completely there yet.
I share exactly the view expressed by the new Secretary of State on why we need the Bill. We need to uphold the rights of freedom of expression, in particular for journalism, and to encourage good journalism, including good investigative journalism, in the process. Journalists should not be afraid of exposing what they need to expose in the public interest. We also need to ensure that ordinary people are protected against poor and misrepresenting journalists, who ruin reputations in such a way that they cannot be recovered. That is the balance we need to strike.
After the election, my noble Friend Lord Lester of Herne Hill was pivotal in putting the matter on the agenda. Both Houses have worked hard through the Joint Committee to make progress, and the Government picked up many, but not all, of its suggestions. My party has twice in the last year looked at the matter at our conferences: to ensure that we have methods for resolving disputes—built into the legislation, if possible—so that if, for example, untrue defamatory statements are propagated, they can be withdrawn without everything having to go through the courts; and to ensure that we enhance our freedom in this country, not reduce it.
There are three matters left to look at, as part of the ongoing debate. One is whether the current processes in the law on early strike-out are sufficient. I heard what the Minister said, but that remains an issue. We want to be able to get rid of nonsense cases—our hon. Friend Sir Peter Bottomley made the case powerfully—to stop them clogging up the courts. We need to see whether we have adequate processes to do that. Secondly, we need to ensure that the public interest defence works appropriately. That is probably the most difficult and controversial area to get right. I am grateful that Ministers have said that they are willing to look broadly at the issues again. Lastly, there is the controversial question of whether the law should protect only individuals or also corporations, and, if so, how. I have no doubt that we shall return to that issue.
Lord Justice Leveson reports we do not confuse things in taking the Bill to the statute book, while at the same time picking up all the proposals he makes. Many people have helped us in the campaign to get libel law reformed, not least the Libel Reform Campaign. We thank them and look forward to continuing to work with them. The work is not completed, but a lot of good work has been done and there is general good will about ensuring that, for the first time in a generation, we bring the libel laws up to date for a modern Britain, in a modern world of communication, but where freedom of speech remains something of which we can be justifiably proud.
Peter Bottomley (Worthing West, Conservative)
I will not follow what Mr MacShane said about the Sergei Magnitsky case, except to say that it would be shocking if the British libel courts are used by the Klyuev organised crime group to try to get at those who are trying to expose the truth and get justice for a person who was murdered.
The person who has not been mentioned much in our debates is a man called William Hone, who is the subject of a great book called “The Laughter of Triumph” by Ben Wilson. William Hone was taken to court for criminal libel on a number of occasions. He was disobliging about Lord Liverpool as Prime Minister, he attacked the Home Secretary, who led for 10 repressive years in government, he was disobliging about someone whom he described as a “fat, lascivious toad”—I will not go into that—and he was rude about the Lord Chief Justice. Juries would not convict William Hone. We are now disposing of juries in virtually all cases of defamation or libel that get heard in the courts. I fear that we may find that advances in law in this area will no longer come from juries and judges, but will be left to the vagaries of the parliamentary timetable, which is a danger. I would therefore like to hear from the Government—perhaps with all-party agreement—that they will return to the issue for legislative scrutiny five years after the Bill becomes an Act.
I believe that the press do not just have the right to be right; I believe they have the right to be wrong. There is the question of what they do when they have got it wrong. Just saying, “Only if you can prove something in advance,” means that we will lose most things.
I end with this bit of advice for those who find that an investigative journalist has written an attack on something for which they are responsible. I was a junior Minister for six years, and whenever I spotted a report by an investigative journalist—including some by Paul Foot—I would ask my Department to find out the answers to various questions that would test whether the accusations had foundation. When I discovered that they had, I would take action. However, in one case when I discovered that the accusations had no foundation, I notified Paul Foot, who told me that it was the first time in the whole of his career as an investigative journalist that someone in authority had come back to him with the information that had been sought and asked whether further inquiries ought to be made. The response to attacks in the press is to find out whether they are justified, not to try to defend oneself whatever the truth.
Bob Russell (Colchester, Liberal Democrat)
“For a politician to complain about the press is like a ship’s captain complaining about the sea.”
I hope that all these assurances can be given in the other place. My concern is that the freedom of the press should be maintained and not curtailed, but one would hope that alongside that there was a recognition by the press that with that freedom comes responsibility. We have to acknowledge that the curse of Murdoch has dumbed down British journalism over the past four decades, to the extent that Private Eye is now more accurate and reliable than many newspapers.
I should declare an interest. For a few weeks in 1973 I was a sub-editor on The Sun,then newly acquired by Murdoch and pre-page 3, and that was between jobs as a sub-editor on the former London Evening News and the London Evening Standard. I come from a background of journalistic training where standards were high. In the National Council for the Training of Journalists and in good old-fashioned newsgathering there were very high standard. Some 44 years ago I was editor of the Maldon and Burnham Standard, a weekly newspaper in Essex, and before that I was secretary of the north Essex branch of the National Union of Journalists. I mention that because there is no doubt in my mind that journalism is not as strong or as good as it used to be, but that is still no excuse for legislation that could be interpreted as an attack on the free press. I sincerely hope that will not be the case.
Those of us who enter public life must accept that we will be attacked and criticised. I do not think that any of us object to that, provided that we know who is doing the attacking and criticising and that the attacks and criticisms are valid or at least have some merit. Madam Deputy Speaker, you might be aware that last Wednesday I raised a point of order with Mr Speaker about a false Twitter account that had been set up to impersonate me. It was used by someone with a sick, evil and warped mind to make a range of vile comments, such as the inference that I was a paedophile or had paedophile tendencies, which is not very pleasant. I was very grateful for Mr Speaker’s observation that that was unacceptable behaviour and a form of harassment. I am therefore pleased that the Bill includes measures that—I hope—will deal with social media.
When I made my point of order, I said that the Twitter account had to be viewed in the context of three years of dirty tricks against me in Colchester by three immature young men. That included a spoof YouTube video of me, a snooper photograph and letters to newspapers with false names and addresses. With regard to the latter, I have written to Lord Justice Leveson to suggest that one of his recommendations should be that, when a newspaper has been shown to have published in good faith a letter that is subsequently found out to have come from someone who gave a fictitious name and address, the person who has been wronged, as I have been on several occasions, should be given not only an apology by the newspaper, but a right of reply. In fairness, on those occasions when I have been able to take the issue up, I have been given the opportunity to reply.
As a former editor of a weekly newspaper, I argue that the onus is on the newspaper to establish the authenticity of the person who has written the letter. When an attack is made on a public figure, such as an MP or the chairman of a football club, there is an even greater onus on the newspaper to check that the person exists. I have no problem with genuine people having genuine concerns. That is something I hope Lord Justice Leveson will include in his recommendations—
Dawn Primarolo (Deputy Speaker; Bristol South, Labour)
Order. I have allowed the hon. Gentleman to make his case, but we are supposed to be debating Third Reading of the Defamation Bill. References to the Lord Leveson inquiry may be made, but the hon. Gentleman needs to come back to discussing the Bill; he should focus specifically on that.
Bob Russell (Colchester, Liberal Democrat)
I think, Madam Deputy Speaker, that defamation takes many forms, and when it is in the printed form, I think the person who has been defamed should have the right of reply. In my case, the author of all the things I referred to is a gentleman called Darius Laws, who is a member of another political party.
Question put and agreed to
Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.