‘(1) Where a court gives judgment for the claimant in an action for defamation the court may order the operator of a website on which the defamatory statement is posted to remove the statement.
(2) Subsection (1) does not affect the power of the court apart from that subsection.’.—(Jeremy Wright.)
Brought up, and read the First time.
New clause 1 deals with an issue raised in Committee by Paul Farrelly. He was concerned that circumstances could arise in which a claimant who had successfully brought an action against the author of defamatory material online could be left unable to secure the removal of the material. That situation might arise as a result of the fact that an author might not always be in a position to remove material that had been found to be defamatory from a website, while the new defence in clause 5 might prevent the website operator from being required to do so. The Government indicated in Committee that we would consider whether anything further was needed to address such situations.
We have concluded that although such situations are likely to be rare, it would be appropriate to include a provision in the Bill to ensure that claimants in such cases do not experience any difficulty in securing the removal of material that has been found to be defamatory. New clause 1 therefore provides that where a court gives a judgment for the claimant in a defamation action, it may order the operator of a website on which the defamatory statement is posted to remove that statement. Such an order could be made either during proceedings or on a separate application. New clause 1(2) ensures that the provision does not have any wider effect on the inherent jurisdiction of the High Court.
In speaking to new clause 1, it may be helpful if I to speak also to Government amendments 5 and 6, and to amendment 7, which has been tabled by Robert Flello. Government amendment 5 relates to the circumstances in which a claimant might defeat the defence set out in clause 5. Such circumstances are set out in clause 5(3), paragraphs (b) and (c) of which require a claimant to show that he gave the operator a notice of complaint in relation to the statement in question and that the operator failed to respond to it in accordance with provisions to be set out in regulations. In addition, paragraph (a) requires that a claimant must show that it was not possible for him to identify the person who posted the statement. Amendment 5 clarifies what is meant in paragraph (a) by the word “identify”. Again, concerns were raised in Committee by the hon. Members for Newcastle-under-Lyme and for Stoke-on-Trent South that the meaning of the word “identify” was unclear and that possible difficulties in obtaining the true identity of the author—for example, when he was using a pseudonym—might mean that the claimant was left without a remedy. In the light of those concerns, we undertook to consider the position further.
Amendment 5 clarifies that, for the purposes of subsection 3(a), it is possible for a claimant to “identify” a person only if they have sufficient information to bring proceedings against that person. The amendment will ensure that claimants are not left in limbo, unable to bring proceedings against an author because they lack information that would enable them to do so, but also unable to defeat the defence of the website operator if the operator failed to take steps to assist. We consider that that will ensure that the new process operates fairly and effectively and strikes an appropriate balance between the interests of claimants and those of website operators.
Amendment 6 makes it clear that if the website operator moderates material posted by third-party users on his site, that fact alone will not defeat the defence that is available under clause 5 to a website operator who can show that he did not post the statement complained about on his website. We share the view, expressed by the Joint Committee on the draft Bill and Members of this House, that responsible moderation of content should be encouraged. We have listened to the concerns raised in Committee and consider that it would be helpful to include a provision giving reassurance on that point. Amendment 6 therefore provides that the defence under clause 5 is not defeated by reason only of the fact that the website operator moderates the statements posted on the site by others.
There might of course be situations when an operator goes too far. They might, for example, moderate content on the website so much as to change the meaning of what the author had posted in a way that makes it defamatory or increases the seriousness of the defamation. In such cases, the courts will have to consider whether the operator’s actions were sufficient for them to be regarded as having posted the material.
We have considered carefully the merits of seeking to prescribe the particular circumstances in which moderation might or might not lead to the operator being regarded as having posted the material. Precisely when an operator should become responsible for a statement they moderate will depend heavily on the individual circumstances of the case. On balance, we think it is right that the courts should have flexibility in making that assessment. We consider that these are sensible and helpful amendments that will aid the effective operation of the new process under clause 5.
Amendment 7, by contrast, would remove clause 5 from the Bill. I will of course listen carefully to what Helen Goodman has to say on the matter, but I am sorry to say that we do not consider removing the clause to be an appropriate move. The current law in this area is unsatisfactory and has created a situation in which website operators, to avoid any risk of being sued, choose to remove material from sites they host on receipt of a complaint, whether or not the material is actually defamatory. That chills free speech.
However, we recognise that when people are defamed online they need to be able to take prompt and effective action to protect their reputation. Including clause 5 in the Bill will mean that the author of a statement is given an opportunity to defend it, rather than it simply being taken down on receipt of a complaint. Should the need arise, complainants will be able to bring proceedings against those truly responsible for statements.
What comment will the Minister make on the fact that Wikipedia publishes biographies of people that are then regularly amended to include untrue, defamatory and unpleasant language? Does he think that Wikipedia should inform those people whose biographies have been re-written in such a way that causes them damage and then allow a truthful statement to be made? At the moment, Wikipedia is an absolute disgrace, allowing the British National party, fascists, anti-Semites and other extremists to alter people’s personal entries.
I understand exactly what the right hon. Gentleman is saying, but he will appreciate that the limits of the Bill are quite constrained, and it is difficult within the confines of our discussion on Report to cover all the issues he raises. What I will say is that clause 5 attempts to strike a balance between protecting freedom of speech on the internet, which he and I are both in favour of, as I am sure is the whole House, and ensuring that there is a quick and effective method by which those who, for example, have their biographies on Wikipedia amended can address the wrong that is done to them. That is the balance we are attempting to strike and that we believe is struck by clause 5 as it stands, which is why I am afraid we cannot support amendment 7. We stand by clause 5 but believe that it can be improved, which is why we ask the House not only to reject amendment 7, but to accept amendments 5 and 6 and new clause 1.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak to Government new clause 1, Government amendments 5 and 6 and our amendment 7. Like the Minister, I will speak to them in that order. I would like to begin by welcoming the new ministerial team. It is great to see them in their places. We in the Opposition hope that they will have a more flexible approach—it already looks as though they will. I pay particular tribute to the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, Mrs Grant. She is only the second black woman to speak from the Government Dispatch Box, and it is a great credit to her that she has achieved that.
New clause 1 will enable the court to order a website operator to remove material if it has been found to be defamatory. That follows amendment 44, which was tabled by my hon. Friend Paul Farrelly in Committee. It covers the point where website operators behave in an irresponsible manner and authors cannot remove the material. I must say that some cold water was poured on the proposal by the ministerial team at the time, who were very reluctant to consider it, but, lo and behold, when we saw the notice of amendments on Monday and the Under-Secretary of State’s letter on Tuesday, we found that the Government have thought again and tabled the new clause. We think that is sensible and in line with the issues we raised in Committee, so we support the change.
Amendment 5 is about what identifying the author actually means. It states:
‘For the purposes of subsection (3)(a), it is possible for a claimant to “identify” a person only if the claimant has sufficient information to bring proceedings against the person.’
That follows the spirit, if not the precise wording, of amendment 18, tabled by my hon. Friend Robert Flello, and amendment 42, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme, in Committee. The purpose of both amendments was to clarify the situation in which the defence is defeated because the claimant could not identify the author. Again, the Minister at the time, Mr Djanogly, said that he would consider it but was not very promising. He said that amendment 42
“would effectively require the website operator to provide the claimant with information that they are unlikely to hold, and that they would, in many cases, find difficult to obtain. The amendment would defeat the simple system that the Government intend to establish”.
On amendment 20, he said that the Government did not consider the processes set out in the Opposition’s amendments to be appropriate. He said:
“The aim of clause 5 is to remove the threat of liability from website operators provided that they assist claimants to identify an author of allegedly defamatory material. That process, which will be set out in regulations, will be quick, clear and practical.”––[Official Report, Defamation Public Bill Committee,
He went on to say that the Opposition amendments cut across the desire for a simple process.
We are very pleased to see Government amendment 5, which responds to the concerns we raised in Committee and it will ensure that claimants are not left in a position where they have insufficient information to take effective action against an author and would be prevented from defeating the web operator’s defence. We say amen to this amendment. However, I have some questions about amendment 5 and its coverage, which I hope the Minister will be able to clarify in his response. The first is the difficult issue of jurisdictions.
There are two aspects to jurisdiction and we discussed them in Committee. The first is the simple case in which the claimant is a UK citizen and the author is identified but lives in a foreign jurisdiction. In that instance, it might be fairly straightforward to bring proceedings in some foreign jurisdictions—if the author were French, for example, it would be a fairly straightforward matter. One can think of other places, however, such as the former Soviet states or some parts of Africa, where it would be extremely difficult to bring proceedings. The person might be properly identified, but because of the jurisdictional difficulties, it would be hard to bring proceedings. Does the Minister think this international problem is resolved? I suspect that it is not, so the Minister needs to tell us whether it is his intention to crack it or whether he thinks it is too difficult to handle here. I hope we will hear something about what can be done about this international problem.
The second type of international problem is where we have a sort of dog-legging situation: the claimant is in this country, the website operator is abroad, the author is in this country and the website operator is not playing by the rules. I would like the Minister to respond to this problem.
Amendment 6 deals with the “defence is not defeated through moderation” theme. It relates to amendment 17 that was moved in Committee by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South. The Minister responded to what we proposed by saying that the defence was not affected by having a policy of amending content in terms of moderation. This is an important issue for raising the tone on the web. I have had conversations with local newspaper editors who say that they do not want to moderate abusive language because they have been told that, as the law stands, they then become liable for defamatory statements. Obviously, if we want people to use the web, we want the tone of debate on it to be civilised and reasonable. It is important that moderation that neither enhances a defamatory statement nor removes a defence against such a statement be allowed. To this extent, we believe that amendment 6 is a good one. We are pleased that the Minister has brought it forward; it was backed by the Joint Committee on the draft Bill, too. Of course, the former Minister, the hon. Member for Huntingdon, said that the amendment was not necessary, but I am pleased that the new team sees that it is.
I deal now with amendment 7, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South. I do not want anyone to think that, having accepted the Government’s improvements to clause 5, which is an extremely weak part of the Bill, we are somehow being churlish in wanting to debate leaving out that clause. When we say we would like to see clause 5 left out, we do not mean that the issue of web operators and defamation on the web should not be addressed. Obviously, we mean that we need a more thorough reform than has been offered by the changes announced by the Minister this lunch time. Let me spell out to the Minister in a little more detail what we see as the remaining problems with clause 5. I shall set out our concerns and I hope that he will take them into account and consider looking further at clause 5—if not today, then when the legislation goes to the other place, which is more likely.
First, we have not been shown the regulations in draft. The ministerial team has repeatedly said that this is a very complex area—we agree—and that it wanted a simple approach set out in the Bill, with the material fleshed out in regulations. When a Department takes that view, however, it is normal to bring forward the regulations. We made that point in Committee—almost three months ago—yet we have still not seen the regulations. I know that the Ministers have been in their jobs for only a week, but their predecessors and officials have known about this problem for three months. It is unacceptable that we still have not had sight of these regulations. We requested that the regulations be approved through the affirmative rather than the negative resolution process, but that change has not been accepted either.
The former Minister, the hon. Member for Huntingdon, wrote to the Committee on
“Website operators will be encouraged to set up and publicise the designated email address” for the purpose of complaints. We have just discussed irresponsible website operators, and we feel that website operators must be “required” to set up and publicise a designated e-mail address.
As to the contents of the notice of complaint, we come to the issue of why a statement is considered to be defamatory. The note says that authors need to appreciate why the words are “inaccurate” or “damaging”—they are fine and not controversial—but also mentions “insupportable”. We have not had any explanation of the meaning of “insupportable”; it is a completely new concept. We want to know whether this is the wording that will appear in the regulations; we must have some explanation.
The draft note sets out three possible scenarios. The third scenario is that in which the author replies and refuses to agree to the removal of the material. Let me refer to two paragraphs that are of particular concern. The note says:
“If the author indicates that he does not wish his identity and contact details to be released then the website operator must contact the complainant… to inform him that the author refuses to agree to removal of the material and has requested that his contact details are not released.
If the complainant wishes to take further action he will need to seek a court order for the website operator to release the identity and contact details that it has in relation to the author.”
I put it to the Minister that his amendment 5 does not resolve the problem of authors’ refusing to hand over their identities. In such circumstances, a complainant will be required to take out a court order—I understand that it is called a Norwich Pharamcal—to establish who the author is. That will require the complainant to spend a lot of money, although the Minister’s aim is to introduce a cheap and easy process that can be used by any member of the public. We still have worries about situation c), and we fear that if they are not properly addressed there is a risk that many authors will take advantage of that loophole to avoid their responsibilities. Having met members of the Hacked Off campaign, I understand that they have devised some wording which they think would resolve the problem. I hope that the Minister has read it, and will consider incorporating it at a later stage.
Because we have not seen the regulations, we do not know what time limits are envisaged. Everyone agrees that there must be time limits, and that things should not drag on for months and months; I think it reasonable for us to want to know what those time limits will be. The fact that the notes circulated by the former Minister do not give a proper definition of “website operators” also makes the position very unclear.
There are other problems with clause 5 that do not relate to the notes. For example, it does not appear to be in line with the e-commerce directive. In Committee my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South tabled amendment 21, which drew attention to that. Under the directive, website operators are not liable unless they know that a statement is unlawful and not simply defamatory: apparently that is covered by regulations 17, 19 and 22. The lack of consistency with the directive will make the law unclear. The object of presenting legislation to the House is to clarify and improve the law, but it seems that a new source of confusion is being created, and I should like to hear what the Minister has to say about that.
One of the recommendations of the Joint Committee, which did some excellent work, was that a notice of complaint should be put next to a posting that has been complained about. I understand that the Minister has still not tackled that suggestion. I know that those in the industry say that it would be technically difficult to implement, but they would say that, wouldn’t they? Of course it would cost them some money, but, as Claire Perry keeps reminding the House, the internet service providers have an income of £3 billion a year, and I think we can expect them to spend money on setting up facilities that will give us the kind of web that we all want.
There is a general issue relating to anonymity and the web with which the Bill does not deal. Many of the problems that we experience with the web are driven by the bad behaviour in which people feel more free to engage because they are protected by anonymity. Ministers need to think about that again, because at present the Government have no properly co-ordinated approach. The Ministry of Justice is trying to deal with the issue of defamation, the Home Office is trying to deal with the issue of the interception of communications, and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport is examining the economic benefits of the net. We need much more co-ordination. Labour has a cross-departmental team to deal with the Bill, because we believe in a strategic approach to internet issues.
As I said earlier, I think that there is still a major problem with external jurisdictions, and I hope that the Minister will say something about it, because the Bill is weak on that front. We gave many examples of the problem in Committee, although I will not repeat them now because I do not want to take up too much time.
The Joint Committee recommended that the Department should produce guidance that was clear and simple to use. There is no clarity on clause 5. There is no guidance, there are no regulations, and the Government are not taking a strategic approach. For all those reasons, we will press amendment 7 to a vote later this afternoon.
Let me begin by welcoming my colleagues who have just joined the team—the new Under-Secretaries of State for Justice, my hon. Friends the Members for Kenilworth and Southam (Jeremy Wright) and for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant). I know my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald the better of the two, and have great confidence in her. If her colleague is as competent as she is, we shall be in good hands in the days ahead. I also welcome the new Secretary of State, who I expect will join us later. I have already had the welcome opportunity of holding a brief conversation with him about the Bill, and I look forward to a more general conversation with him about it after the completion of its House of Commons stages later today.
I have taken over responsibility for the Bill from my right hon. Friend Tom Brake, who has joined the Government as Deputy Leader of the House. I congratulate him on that. I shall be carrying out a holding operation today without other support, but we will bolster our troops when the Bill goes to the other place.
Our general position is that it is absolutely right to reform the law. These new clauses and amendments relate to a matter of great significance out there in the real world. As was pointed out by Helen Goodman, this is real live legislation for 2012 and beyond. Bills, and the drafting of Bills, may appear to be somewhat esoteric, but what is done with websites, how people are held to account for what is said, how the transmission of information is managed, and how inappropriately transmitted information is controlled are important issues.
Mr MacShane also raised the general issue of appropriateness. Items can appear on websites overnight, for instance on Wikipedia, and catching up with them, correcting them and ensuring that information is accurate is an extraordinarily difficult job. It may be thought that people’s reputations are not hugely adversely affected by something that may be there one day and gone the next, but that is clearly not the reality of the world. A message that has appeared on Twitter can subsequently be removed, but by that stage—I am afraid that I cannot quote “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” accurately—it will, like Puck, have gone around the world before anyone has had a chance to do anything about it.
I welcome the Government new clause and the two new Government amendments. All the matters with which they deal were discussed in Committee. It was decided that new clause 1 was necessary, and it is a welcome proposed addition to the Bill. It may need to be tidied up further, and I am sure the Government do not pretend that this will definitely be the end of the conversation.
We debated the issues raised in Government amendment 5 in Committee in June. It was requested that something be done, and they have put forward a proposal.
The Liberal Democrats have for a long time been calling for the sort of change that is made by Government amendment 6, because comment moderation is clearly a good thing and should not be discouraged by a risk of liability to an author who is trying to moderate and improve an intolerant comment. That may need additional work, too, however.
The Bill has returned to the House earlier than we expected because of the lacuna in the Government programme caused by a larger Bill—that on House of Lords reform—having been taken out and parked in the sidings for while. As a result, all of us—including the Department and the new ministerial team—have been caught short, and I therefore accept that the right place to deal with a lot of these issues will be the House of Lords, which is unusual for me because it is my general view that any changes to legislation that originate in the House of Commons should be undertaken by elected representatives in the Commons. We should leave the
Lords to sweep up and do other things, rather than rely on it as the place to make substantive changes. I accept that this will be a slightly unusual Bill, therefore, and I will willingly work with colleagues in other parties to get it into the best possible shape.
I do not think Labour amendment 7 offers the right approach. We should not remove clause 5. The Government amendments to the clause are welcome and, as the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland half-conceded, removing the clause would be inappropriate as we are adding two amendments and a new clause to improve its provisions. As I have said outside this place to shadow Ministers, however, I am sure more work will need to be done. So long as we all share that attitude, I trust we will be able to work constructively.
If votes are called, I will invite my party colleagues to support the Government on their new clause and the two amendments and to resist the Labour amendment, in the knowledge that Ministers, shadow Ministers and other Members are willing to work collaboratively together and with those outside this place who have taken a good and informed interest in helping us get the law right. There is a strong mood in this place and in the country in favour of reform to the law on defamation, as it has clearly fallen into disrepute. I pay tribute to those who have done all the work so far, and I support the Government, who are clearly in a constructive mood to improve the Bill.
May I both welcome the new ministerial team and put on record my sadness that Mr Djanogly will not pilot the Bill through? He did a lot of work on the Bill. He said he would reconsider certain details in respect of websites, and the Government have brought forward amendments, which I welcome.
New clause 1 seeks to address a perverse and, no doubt, unintended anomaly, whereby so long as a website operator complies with all the requirements and delivers up the identity of the poster, they can continue to publish content on the site. I pointed out that anomaly in Committee, using the example of a political website that, having complied, continued to run defamatory material about rivals for the sheer mischief of it. This is a live issue.
I have one principal question. The new clause seems to be very narrowly drawn. It appears to say that the claimant must first succeed in an action for defamation for the court to be able to order a website operator to take down material. The amendments I tabled in Committee, but then withdrew, were broader. They covered, for instance, circumstances where an individual could ask for an injunction ordering that material be taken down in advance of an action for libel, which might, of course, take some time to be heard. Is it the Government’s intention that courts should be able to issue injunctions or other orders only after a successful libel action? It would also be helpful if the Minister could clarify the meaning of subsection (2) of the new clause.
I thank Members for their kind words of welcome to me and my fellow Justice Minister, my hon. Friend Mrs Grant. I also echo the tribute Paul Farrelly has just paid to my predecessor, my hon. Friend Mr Djanogly, whom I thought Helen Goodman was very harsh on, as he certainly was involved in the concessions—
Well, I have read the Hansard reports and I thought the hon. Lady was harsh on my hon. Friend.
I welcome the official Opposition’s attitude to new clause 1 and amendments 5 and 6. The hon. Member for Bishop Auckland made a couple of points, however, which I shall try to address. On jurisdiction, the Government would not pretend that in this Bill we have resolved the international problem she describes. As she knows, it is an extraordinarily complex problem that requires a great deal of work. We are not there yet, and work will continue.
On clause 5, claimants can begin proceedings and obtain judgments in this country even if the operator of the website or the person making the statement is abroad. Then, of course, the issue becomes one of enforcement of judgments. There are international agreements with some countries for that, but I do not pretend that the situation is perfect, and we will look again at what we can do to improve it. The fact that we cannot do everything should not mean we do nothing, however, and this Bill goes a considerable way to dealing with many of the problems.
On amendment 6, I entirely agree with what the hon. Lady said about the desirability of moderation on websites. We do not want disincentives to that, which is why we have tabled amendment 6, and I am grateful for her support for it.
There is no consensus on amendment 7, however. I cannot subscribe to the hon. Lady’s view that clause 5 should be removed. I acknowledge that she said it is not the official Opposition’s intention simply to leave the problem in question unaddressed by removing the clause, but, for the purposes of Report stage, that is the effect of her amendment. It would remove clause 5 and it would not replace it with anything. It is important to bear that in mind.
We will be seeking views on regulations. It is important to ensure that a broad range of views are sought, and that we make sure we get things right. We hope to have secured the necessary input by the end of the year.
The hon. Lady referred to the note of proposed procedure presented to the Committee. It was never intended that that should be the regulations. That was intended as an indication of the Government’s thinking on these matters. Clearly, a good deal of detail is yet to be confirmed. I hope she will accept that that note was designed merely to give an indication of where we are headed.
The hon. Lady made a perfectly fair point about authors refusing to hand over their contact details, rightly saying that if they refuse to hand those over to website operators we will still be requiring claimants to go to court to obtain the Norwich Pharmacal orders, of which she is now intimately aware, and that will put them to expense. That is true but, again, I say to her and to the House that we are trying to strike that delicate balance between the interests of defendants and the interests of claimants. Our procedure attempts to make things easier for claimants, in respect of authors who do not want to say who they are to the website operator, in which case their comments will, of course, be taken down from the website, as well as for authors who are prepared to make their contact details available and whose details will then be passed on by the website operator to the claimant. The hon. Lady said that the Hacked Off campaign has wording that may resolve this problem. If that is the case, I am sure that Lord McNally, who is dealing with this matter in the other place, will be delighted to hear from the campaign and will give that full consideration.
As for the suggestion of placing a notice of complaint next to the posting that was originally causing the problem, I do not think it is fair to say that it is simply a problem of cost. As I understand it, potentially defamatory statements may be embedded in more than one website. We therefore also face the problem of deciding which website operator should be responsible for placing a notice of complaint next to the posting, and that technical problem should not be entirely passed over.
The hon. Lady rightly highlights a wider problem for the Government in respect of anonymity on websites. Again, it is right to say, in the interests of balance, that anonymity can in some cases be entirely justified. Whistleblowers are the most obvious example in that regard, and we would not wish to legislate in a way that prevented whistleblowers from acting under cover of anonymity. We hope that, under the procedures in clause 5, if someone maintains their anonymity and refuses to give their details to the website operator, any defamatory statement or potentially defamatory statement that is complained about will be taken down from the website. Finally, may I reassure her that nothing in the Bill conflicts with the e-commerce regulations?
I very much welcome the support of my right hon. Friend Simon Hughes for new clause 1 and for amendments 5 and 6. He rightly echoes the comments of Mr MacShane about the difficulty of catching up with Wikipedia. The internet in general is a fast-changing landscape. All of us, as legislators, are running to catch up with it and to do our best to ensure that we achieve the right balance between freedom of speech and the protection of those who may be defamed within that arena.
My right hon. Friend is also right to say that further consideration of the Bill will be given by Lord McNally, with whom I know he is in conversation, and by the other place. However, my right hon. Friend will recognise, to be fair to this place, that there has at least been some movement by the Government on this clause. Even with the time constraints imposed on us, we have been able to shift our ground somewhat through the amendments I have proposed today.
That brings me to the comments made by Paul Farrelly. He deserves thanks, and I pay tribute to him, for his assiduous contributions in Committee. His contribution, along with that of Robert Flello, has obviously moved us towards the Government amendments that I have proposed today. The hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme says that new clause 1 is narrowly drafted, and that is so to a degree. The problem is that with a wider amendment the Government would risk continuing the situation where people who run websites take down statements that they fear may be defamatory and that may leave them open to condemnation without those statements necessarily being defamatory. That is why we have made our judgment in new clause 1 that only when a judgment has been reached will the order be available for courts to make to ensure that those statements can be taken down.
Inadvertently, the Minister has just torn up, buried, driven a stake through one of the oldest principles of journalism: when in doubt, leave it out. That has saved a lot of newspapers in a lot of countries from defamation cases, so it is a very good idea. He is reversing that by saying, “Let it be published. If you have doubts, let’s see whether the person we are defaming can get an action and then a decision from a court judge.” I hope that when the Bill goes to the other place we will enshrine the very good principle of journalism: when in doubt, do not publish and leave it out.
The right hon. Gentleman slightly over-dramatises the position; I am not saying that at all. I am saying that particular circumstances apply to the clause dealing with website operators. New clause 1 is designed to assist us in striking the balance that I have mentioned several times. We hope that the effect of the Bill as a whole will be to encourage all those inclined towards publishing statements that are potentially defamatory to think carefully before they do so. However, we want to strike the right balance between that and ensuring that people are not so afraid of having actions brought against them that they do not allow free speech to operate, either on the internet or elsewhere. I have accepted many times that this is a delicate balance to strike, but we believe that we have done our best to strike it.
What would have happened if 22 years ago someone had had a website and they had published their suspicion that the police had had statements altered in regard to a great tragedy such as Hillsborough? Let us suppose that the police had then taken out a defamation action. First, would they have been disqualified from doing so as a public body? Secondly, if an individual police officer took out that action, what defence would have been available to the person who may have been present at the tragedy, and who may have had inside knowledge of what the police statements had contained and how they came out in public?
My hon. Friend raises some fair questions. I know that he will forgive me if I do not litigate a case that may or may not have happened 22 years ago. As he knows, there is various case law on these issues as they affect public authorities and defamation—if he will forgive me, I will not go down that road. However, I will urge the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland not to press amendment 7—
The Minister has been clear that he wishes courts to make orders only after successful defamation cases. What he has not answered is my question about the meaning of subsection (2) of the new clause, which refers to subsection (1) not affecting
“the power of the court”.
The courts, of course, have the power to issue injunctions.
Of course they do. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that I omitted to mention that and of course that is exactly the point. The court’s right to make injunctions remains, and although interim injunctions are rare, they are still available. The purpose of the subsection is to ensure that they remain so. With that, I ask that hon. Members support new clause 1 and amendments 5 and 6, and I urge them to resist amendment 7.
Question put and agreed to.
New clause 1 accordingly read a Second time, and added to the Bill.