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Defamation Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:01 pm on 12th June 2012.

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Photo of Helen Goodman Helen Goodman Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport) 5:01 pm, 12th June 2012

It is a pleasure to follow Nadine Dorries, who has spoken a lot of common sense this afternoon. I recognise her descriptions of

constituency cases. A constituent of mine who was a victim of domestic violence has been defamed in a newspaper, the family of a murder victim was trolled by the offender’s family, and there is also the case of the family of a soldier who died in Afghanistan, about whom remarks were made which, had he lived, would have been defamatory. All these cases are very alarming and serious.

The police are not up to speed on such internet crimes. When we go to the police with such issues, their mentality is such that they in effect say, “Well, it’s on the internet, so it can’t be too serious. Don’t worry about it.” As the hon. Lady pointed out, however, such cases are very serious.

The previous Labour Government initiated post-legislative scrutiny. I do not know whether the coalition Government are continuing with it, but it provides an opportunity for checking and reviewing the effectiveness of legislation.

While at the other end of town Lord Leveson is examining the practices and ethics of the press and is mainly focused on its misbehaviour, it is a pleasure to have before us a Bill which will perhaps offer a more positive agenda and support good quality journalism.

Change is undoubtedly needed, which is why the manifestos of all three main parties contained commitments on libel reform. There are four glaring problems. The first is access to justice, which is clearly lacking for most people. I do not know why, but libel in the UK is much more expensive than it is in other countries. Secondly, there is the problem of libel tourism, when cases that have nothing to do with British citizens are brought through the English courts. Thirdly, there is the chilling impact on scientific debate when legitimate criticism, especially of large companies and their products, is sometimes suppressed. Other Members have referred to the cases of Simon Singh and Peter Wilmshurst. Finally, the law needs to be brought up to date to address the new technologies and the internet.

I welcome the Government’s intentions in bringing forward the Bill, but I have some doubts about whether it goes far enough. I hope that the Bill Committee will consider making changes so that we do not miss the opportunities that the Bill presents. Ministers need to make it clear what they mean by “serious harm”: it must relate to reputation and not just to material harm. I agree that the threat of bringing libel proceedings as part of reputation management must end, but we need greater clarity from Ministers than we have had so far.

The Bill introduces a defence of “Responsible publication on matter of public interest”, in clause 4. That is an improvement and should strengthen journalists’ freedom to undertake serious investigations. Of course, everyone in the House favours a free press and wants it to fulfil one of its key roles in an open society of uncovering corruption and wrongdoing. Quite rightly, this defence should facilitate that. I am sympathetic to Ministers’ unwillingness to define “public interest” but I hope that they will be able to give some examples. For example, do they share the definitions in the current Press Complaints Commission code and Crown Prosecution Service guidance? It would be helpful to acknowledge that public interest covers both substance—the importance of the issue being debated—and process: how thoroughly journalists have checked the story they are publishing. What is not quite clear is why and in what respects the Bill has departed from the Reynolds defence. It does not match the Reynolds defence exactly and it would be helpful if Ministers explained why they have chosen to change the Reynolds defence in a number of respects.

Clause 5, “Operators of websites”, looks too weak in the sense that by abandoning the publishing role that exists for parallel situations in other media—for example with the letters column of a newspaper or the broadcasting of a TV chat show—clause 5(2) makes things very hard for a person who is defamed on the web because they would have to track down the originator even if they had been given the address by the website’s operator. That seems rather unfair. Surely it should be a basic principle, which we should establish across the board, that the net is not outside the law and cannot be, like the forest in the 14th century and the time of Robin Hood, a place of pure anarchy. The rights and responsibilities that we have developed in the real world should be reproduced in the virtual world. In some respects the net is different in that it is large, vast and global, so we cannot simply have the same rules to secure the same outcomes, but unless we tackle websites rather more effectively than the Bill appears to, I fear that a massive loophole will remain. One problem is that the measures produce unfair competition for newspapers, which are bound by more restrictive and tighter definitions.