Defamation Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:14 pm on 12th June 2012.

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Photo of David Morris David Morris Conservative, Morecambe and Lunesdale 5:14 pm, 12th June 2012

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to contribute to this important debate. It is a convention of this House that right hon. and hon. Members declare an interest at the beginning of their speech, but today I will do the opposite and state, for the record, that I was not the David Morris who was co-defendant in the “McLibel” case. It remains the longest running English civil law case.

It has been said that the law of defamation has a chilling effect on freedom of speech. Trials can be complicated, expensive and, particularly in the “McLibel” case, lengthy. Perhaps the exclusion of jury trials will assist, as facts can often be technical and generally complicated. Legal costs often run into tens of thousands of pounds, and it is not uncommon for those defending their reputation to declare bankruptcy as a result of the costs. In my view, that is not fair.

As this House is aware, defamation actions originate before the High Court. Some right hon. and hon. Members have argued that, certainly in the case of privacy actions, more accessible and cheaper actions should be available in the lower courts, and I can see no reason why the same should not apply to defamation. Perhaps there could be a fast track within the county court that allows for apologies to be issued and low value damages to be awarded.

When I read the Bill, I was pleased to find that my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor had incorporated a provision in respect of serious harm. Our libel laws have been described as “claimant friendly”; the burden of proof currently lies with the defendant, which, of course, is the exact opposite to the situation applying to any other legal action. I hope this change will redress the balance, eradicating unnecessary litigation.

In recent years, so-called “libel tourism” has been a burden on our civil legal system. According to media lawyer Ursula Smartt,

“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, is often described as the “libel capital” of the world. Libel tourism, at its simplest level, is when foreign citizens conduct actions against foreign citizens in British courts. One notable exception in this regard is what happened in the United States of America in August 2010, when President Obama signed an agreement that protects US citizens from British libel decisions. Libel tourism perhaps occurs as a result of the extraordinarily high damages that are often awarded, and I would like assurances from the Minister that he will take all possible steps to eradicate libel tourism.

Many of us have watched with great interest the development of the case law in relation to the internet. Right hon. and hon. Members will be aware that the social network website Facebook is within the scope of this jurisdiction as a result of the Applause Store case, yet Twitter is not. Indeed, according to the Twitter statement on the website of the Leveson inquiry, Twitter

“does not respond to complaints regarding the content of the Twitter service”.

That appears to directly contradict the case law established in both the Demon Internet and the Applause Store cases, although, as previously stated, there is no case law that brings Twitter within the jurisdiction of our courts.

Some would argue that this is a victory for freedom of speech, whereas others would say that one cannot fit defamatory statements within Twitter’s 147 characters. We must balance the protection of reputation with the ability to have free speech, while keeping in mind that we do not wish to encourage so called “libel tourism”.

It is not just libel tourism that is increasing. In 2009-10, 30 celebrities brought libel claims, including Peter Andre, Sir Elton John and David Beckham, compared with a figure of 11 in 2008-09. I was pleased to read in clause 4 that what has become known as the “Reynolds defence” has been incorporated into the Bill; this is a very useful defence that encourages investigative-style journalism. It is an important part of our democratic process that politicians and those who hold public office are held to account—a point that Greg Lambert at my local newspaper, Morecambe’s The Visitor, appears to have taken to heart.

There has been much debate about the Duke of Brunswick rule. The rule suggests that re-publication of a defamatory statement is also defamatory. I accept that that rule, decided more than 150 years ago, is out of date, but journalists should be encouraged to check their sources for accuracy rather than allowing the reproduction of inaccurate statements or photographs that can often have an effect on their victims’ personal lives that outweighs the price to the public of a cheap tabloid paper. Perhaps that is why we do not see the serial sackings of editors when they are found out for their disreputable practices.

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for bringing this Bill to the House.