‘(1) The publication of a statement which is, or forms part of, a statement on a matter of public interest is privileged unless the publication is shown to be made with malice.
(2) Subsection (1) shall not apply if the claimant shows that the defendant—
(a) was requested by him to publish, in a suitable manner, either or both
(i) a reasonable letter or statement by way of explanation or contradiction (a “response”), and
(ii) where appropriate, a correction or clarification; and
(b) refused or otherwise failed to do so.
(c) For the purpose of subsection 2(a), “in a suitable manner” means in the same manner as the publication complained of or in a manner that is adequate and reasonable in the circumstances.
(d) In determining what is “adequate and reasonable” for the purposes of subsection (3)(a) particular regard shall be had to—
(i) the need for a response to have equal prominence as the statement complained of;
(ii) the promptness of the publication of a response;
(iii) the extent, prominence and promptness of the publication of a correction or clarification.
(3) In determining whether, for the purposes of subsection (2)(a)(ii), a correction or clarification is “appropriate” regard shall be had to—
(a) whether a correction or clarification is required to extinguish any defamatory imputation of the statement complained of, and
(b) whether the author, editor or publisher knew, or ought to have known, that the defamatory imputation (or,
in the case of a statement of an opinion containing a defamatory imputation, the fact on which the opinion was based) was false by the time the complaint was received or upon receipt of the complaint.
(4) For the purposes of subsection (1) malice shall be taken to mean—
(a) the absence of an honest belief in the truth of the statement complained of, or an opinion expressed therein,
(b) reckless disregard to the truth or falsity of the statement complained of, or
(c) the existence of a dominant improper motive for the publication of the statement complained of.
(5) Nothing in this section shall be construed as—
(a) protecting the publication of a matter the publication of which is prohibited by law, or
(b) limiting any privilege subsisting apart from this section.’.—(Simon Hughes.)
Brought up, and read the First time.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
‘the court must have regard to all the circumstances of the case and those circumstances may include (among other things)—’.
Amendment 1, page 3, line 5, after ‘it’, insert—
‘or within or a reasonable amount of time following initial publication’.
Amendment 10, page 3, line 7, leave out paragraph (g).
Amendment 2, page 3, line 8, at end insert—
‘within a reasonable amount of time, allowing for the public and commercial interest in publication.’.
Amendment 11, page 3, line 9, leave out from ‘the’ to end of line and insert—
‘urgency of the matter; or’.
Amendment 3, page 3, line 10, at end insert—
Amendment 12, page 3, line 10, at end insert—
‘() the extent of the defendant’s compliance with any relevant code of conduct or other relevant guidelines’.
Amendment 4, page 3, line 21, at end insert—
‘(7) In determining public interest, the court shall have regard to whether the claimant is a person in public life, which should be taken to include (amongst others) politicians, public officials, celebrities and others whose influence, earnings or social status is dependent on a public image.’.
This debate is about how we deal with what is or is not a matter of public interest—which, in itself, is increasingly becoming a matter of public interest.
I had a few days off in August. I tried to escape the British media by going to Spain—in particular, to watch Barcelona play Real Madrid in the first half of the super cup, in that most fantastic of stadiums in Barcelona. I did not succeed entirely in having five days free from the British media, because even the Spanish media were reporting that The Sun was publishing photographs of Prince Harry, defending its actions on the basis that they were in the public interest. In that way, the debate starts to take over everything that people want to justify. However, in the light of the Prime Minister’s statement earlier and the comments across the House, I hope that
The Sun understands today what is in the public interest and that that appears on the front page of tomorrow morning’s paper by way of an apology to the supporters of Liverpool who were killed or injured at Hillsborough 23 years ago.
I want to introduce the debate by tracing where we have got to in terms of legislation. My new clause 4 suggests an additional way of dealing with public interest matters, which I hope will commend itself to the House. I have had the benefit of a brief word with the new Secretary of State and the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, Mrs Grant, who will be responding to this debate, both of whom we welcome to their posts. It is not my intention to divide the House on my new clause today; we just need to flag up where the issues are. Also, given that the time we have been given since the Bill was in Committee has been foreshortened, I accept that the issue will need more consideration.
Until recently, the question of what was in the public interest was dealt with by the common law, as opposed to by statute. I can do no better than to quote a short excerpt from the excellent Library note on the Defamation Bill—research paper 12/30, published on
“the House of Lords sent a strong signal that the direction of travel, post-Reynolds had not been sufficiently in favour of press freedom,” and, as the Library paper sets out, highlighted:
“Lord Hoffman’s comment that the non-exhaustive list of ten factors that had been set out in Reynolds to consider whether the journalism employed had been responsible had been taken by some judges as a set of hurdles to be overcome by a defendant.”
Before the Reynolds case, it seems that
“it was clear that, although no generic privilege existed for fair publication in the press on a matter of public interest, there were some situations in which a qualified privilege would attach to publications to the general public,” yet it was unclear quite how that would work.
The Bill we are considering today was preceded by a draft Bill, which was considered by a Joint Committee of both Houses. It concluded on the subject:
“The Reynolds defence of responsible journalism in the public interest should be replaced with a new statutory defence that makes the law clearer, more accessible and better able to protect the free speech of publishers. The Bill must make it clear that the existing common law defence will be repealed.”
Therefore, clause 4, which is entitled “Responsible publication on matter of public interest”, contains a proposal to replace the common law defence with a statutory defence. Subsection (6) states:
“The common law defence known as the Reynolds defence is abolished.”
The right hon. Gentleman might prefer to leave this question to the Minister to answer. If that substitution becomes part of our law, does that mean that no other common law could be found by judges that would allow a defence against a claim for defamation?
My understanding of the situation is that, once we expressly repeal the common law defence and enact a statutory defence, that becomes the basis of all the decisions the courts will make subsequently. Of course, common law will build up as the new statute is interpreted, but it will be an end to the old case law and we will start again with this legislation. Therefore, if we are taking the opportunity—I think we all want to take it—to bring to Parliament the way we define these things, it is important to try to get it right. That is why I have proposed a new clause that would deal with some of the issues, which I hope colleagues in the House believe are appropriate ones to have in the legislation. I will return to that point in a moment.
The Government’s explanatory notes to the Bill state:
“The factors listed at subsection (2) are not intended to operate as a checklist or set of hurdles”.
Clause 4(2) provides a list—paragraphs (a) to (i)—setting out matters that are defined as follows:
“in determining for the purposes of this section whether a defendant acted responsibly in publishing a statement the matters to which the court may have regard include (amongst other matters)—
(a) the nature of the publication and its context”.
For example, is it a broadsheet newspaper with a national circulation, a paper published by three people, or whatever? The list continues. The Joint Committee had suggested:
“When deciding whether publication was responsible, the court should have regard to any reasonable editorial judgment of the publisher on the tone and timing of the publication.”
That suggestion did not find support with the Government, who responded:
“We have considered the need for a specific provision of this nature, but believe that this is unnecessary, as in practical terms in determining whether a publisher had acted responsibly in publishing the statement complained of, the court would in reality be considering whether the publisher had exercised its editorial judgment responsibly. There is also the need to ensure that the defence is clearly applicable in a wide range of circumstances beyond mainstream media cases, and focusing on editorial judgment in this way might cast doubt on that. Including a specific provision would therefore appear unnecessary and potentially confusing, and we consider that the clause already provides protection for responsible editorial judgment as it stands.”
That is how the Bill came to the House and to the Committee, and the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald, who was a member of the Committee, and others then looked at those issues. I think that the debate hinged on two things. First, did the drafting of the statutory defence in fact take account of the law as it now is, because things had moved on? There had been a case called Flood, which had just been decided and was reported this year. The Government were asked whether they appropriately took that case into account as the latest interpretation of the Reynolds case. Robert Flello suggested that it did not look as though the Government had taken that case into account and therefore argued, with the support of the Libel Reform Campaign, that there had not been enough flexibility in trying to catch up with the position the judges had arrived at. Secondly, was that sufficient in any event anyway? The debate on the second point hinged around whether it should be for the claimant to prove that the publisher had acted irresponsibly and, therefore, what the balance of argument should be. Should there be more of an onus on the claimant or on the defendant? Mr Djanogly—I join others in thanking him for his collaboration and assistance when he was the Under-Secretary—said that it would “unfairly tilt the balance” against the defendant. At that stage, he therefore resisted a change. He made it clear that the Government were seeking to bring the Bill to Parliament to reflect case law as it had developed after the Reynolds case and in the light of the Flood case. Ministers, including the hon. Gentleman, were good in saying that they would consult further and hear further points. My right hon. Friend Tom Brake and I subsequently went to see Lord McNally, to put the case for a broader definition.
New clause 4 is designed to take as many cases as possible out of the courts. As we heard in the previous debate on conditional fees, this is an area in which avoiding going to court is for the better. I also sense—it is the mood I have picked up when I have heard these issues debated across this Chamber in questions or in Committee—that when most of our constituents discover something in the press that either libels or defames them, what they want most of all is an immediate or very speedy publication of an apology, a retraction or a correction—bluntly, of the same size and in the same place as where the original allegation was made. We can never undo an allegation that has been put out, but if a tabloid newspaper puts something on its front page that is blatantly wrong, malicious and unsupported by the evidence, people will feel that at least there has been some remedy if the next day or the next week, on the same page of the same paper, something appears to say, “I’m sorry; we were wrong”.
The gentleman arrested last year in Bristol on a charge of murdering a young woman—it turned out to be a completely false trail—was willing to stand up and argue his case in public, being fairly combative about it, but that is not the case for all our constituents. Some are not in a position to engage with the media, and would not wish to do so, in trying to correct the record.
New clause 4, with the support of the Libel Reform Campaign, is designed to achieve the following. First, it sets out to ensure that we assert press freedom, by saying:
“The publication of a statement which is, or forms part of, a statement on a matter of public interest is privileged”— so it would be allowed—
“unless the publication is shown to be made with malice.”
I would argue that in addition to a provision such as the clause currently in the Bill, we need a further protection for press freedom, but one that will be lost if an author is malicious or shown to be malicious. Losing the protection would follow from failing to publish the apology that had been requested. That is provided for in subsection (2): the publication or newspaper would lose its defence if the claimant could show that the defendant
“was requested by him to publish, in a suitable manner, either or both…a reasonable letter or statement by way of explanation or contradiction…and…where appropriate, a correction or clarification; and…refused or otherwise failed to do so.”
There is a definition of “a suitable manner”, which means, in short,
“adequate and reasonable in the circumstances.”
There is also a definition of what is “adequate and reasonable”, and the provision refers to
“equal prominence as the statement complained of;…the promptness of the publication of a response;…the extent, prominence and promptness of the publication of a correction or clarification.”
“Appropriate” is defined, too, and the provision refers to
“whether a correction or clarification is required to extinguish any defamatory imputation” and
“whether the author, editor or publisher knew, or ought to have known, that the defamatory imputation”— or, if it is an opinion—
“the fact on which the opinion was based…was false by the time the complaint was received or upon receipt of the complaint.”
Lastly, there is a definition of “malice”, namely
“the absence of an honest belief in the truth of the statement complained of, or an opinion expressed”,
“reckless disregard to the truth or falsity”,
“the existence of a dominant improper motive for the publication”.
If a newspaper went after a colleague, a councillor, a council leader or a parliamentarian, or any individual, with no evidential basis for its assertions, unless it owned up to its failure and offered redress in the form of a published apology there would be a basis for a malicious claim, and the public interest defence would not apply.
I am fully aware of the provenance of the new clause and of the sterling work done by the Libel Reform Campaign, and I am very sympathetic to what the right hon. Gentleman is trying to achieve, but I want to ask him a question. Let us suppose that an innocent mistake is made, which may not be apparent to the newspaper. When a complainant writes to the newspaper saying “I want an apology”, the newspaper gives the standard response, “We stand by our story: it is true and in the public interest.” I fear that in those circumstances there will be no defence for responsible journalism, because under the new clause it falls away.
I accept that, and I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman’s work, which has been gleaned from his experience in his previous life as a journalist.
What we are trying to do between us is ensure that if we are to replace the common-law defence with a statutory defence, we not only deal with the general proposition that if something is in the public interest, that should be a defence, but find ways of giving the public a remedy—which they do not currently have, short of going to law—and ratchet up the probability that a public interest defence will be unsuccessful if the defendant has been malicious.
As the hon. Gentleman rightly pointed out, the definition of “malice” in the new clause is not my own handiwork. Others have been working carefully to craft what they consider to be the right second-tier definition. The aim is to establish two tiers of consideration: there should be a general public interest defence, but the situation should be deemed to have gone beyond that when a publisher has flown in the face of the facts or the evidence. That would not apply to the example given by the hon. Gentleman, because if a newspaper could honestly argue that the statement that it had published was ignorant and innocent and that there had been every reason for believing that it was true, it would obviously have a much more complicated public interest defence case to argue. In the absence of my new clause, it would then have to rely on something like the clause that is currently in the Bill.
Let me make just two more substantive points. I am keen for us to end up with legislation that will give people a way out of the legal process when that is possible. Who knows what the Leveson inquiry will produce? I sense that one of its main recommendations will concern how we should deal with the public’s desire for inaccuracies to be corrected. I gave evidence before Lord Justice Leveson, as did others, and that was a major subject of debate. We may have to legislate if Lord Justice Leveson proposes legislation, and I hope that that would happen in the Session that will begin next May. It is therefore possible that we will return to this issue.
There is a debate about when the Leveson report will be ready, but if it appears as early as October, it may give us time to incorporate any proposals in this Bill. If it does not produce its recommendations until December, which now looks more likely, I sense we will have to come up with further legislation specifically to deal with the Leveson recommendations. Although we may not come up with a perfect solution in this Bill, however, both Government and Opposition parties have said they want to try to get this issue sorted now and get a better definition of public interest defence.
I want the House to agree to a measure that adds to the current clause 4, with a new defence available to publishers who are prepared to correct the record or publish a right-to-reply response promptly and prominently, thereby avoiding the use of lawyers. That answers the need in the internet age for a much speedier response—otherwise many readers are unlikely to see both the original content and the later clarification. It offers newspapers and other publishers a way of being responsible after the publication of the initial story, too, because they can be shown to have corrected what they have published. It will also serve not to permit the repetition of a defamatory allegation that has been promptly or prominently corrected or clarified. It would, therefore, take disputes out of the courts, thus saving people money, and it would speed up justice and make it more publicly accessible. It would not apply if the author were motivated by malice in its widest definition, which includes political or personal ill will or vendetta, rather than just the old honest opinion defence. The information must also be understandable to the public.
The Reynolds defence no longer works. Everybody accepts that we must move on from that common-law position for all sorts of reasons. We are in the age of the citizen-journalist, and we need to adapt the rules to accommodate that. We need something that will work for conventional newspaper groups and new media organisations. The Reynolds defence has outlived its time. It will no longer be sufficient to have a checklist of tests in every court case. Perhaps we ought to debate again whether to have early strike-out clauses in order to get other kinds of cases out of the courts, too. We need a measure that sorts out at the beginning of proceedings, rather than the end, whether there is a public interest component.
The right hon. Gentleman referred to strike-out clauses. He is probably aware of the case of my constituent Hardeep Singh, who was the subject of a lengthy and unfair—and extremely expensive, for him—case centring on a matter of religious dispute. The judge eventually clearly ruled that the matter should not be dealt with by the courts. A similar doctrinal dispute could arise in future, so if there is not an early strike-out opportunity someone else could suffer as Mr Singh did. What can be done to end this?
I know about that particular case; indeed, it has become something of a cause célèbre. I support having an early strike-out provision. We had a long debate on the subject in Committee, which is why Mr Speaker did not select an amendment on it for debate on Report. I hope we can persuade the Government that an appropriate public interest defence, plus a remedy for resolving disputes along the lines I have suggested, plus early strike-out is the right combination not just to address cases such as that of the hon. Lady’s constituent, but to prevent other kinds of unacceptable attack. I hope she will work with us. I am sure that she will. She also has relevant experience that I hope she can bring to the debates after today.
My final point relates to the offer of amends defence. As colleagues will be aware, that is exactly what it says it is: someone can go to court to say, “Look, I have made an offer to sort this out. Therefore, I am not guilty and I will be let off.” What I am arguing for is not the same as an offer of amends. That means an admission of liability and requires agreed damages—or leaves it for the court to agree damages, with a discount if the offer has been made, and costs and so on. That is a settlement mechanism, which is conventional in the court process, and it has been able to be a defence only if the claimant refused an offer in any case. I am arguing for something wider than that. I believe that what I suggest is compliant with human rights law and that it produces a route to get lots of cases out of the courts. I hope that Ministers will add it to their list of things in their inbox of proposals to consider; that is what I want the Minister to say today. I look forward to the continuing debate. We have a few more months to get this into good shape, but we need to do quite a bit more work before it will be in that position.
Thank you very much, Mr Deputy Speaker.
Amendment 9 is the first of a series aimed at either improving or clarifying the Government’s thinking on clause 4 regarding “responsible journalism”. Clearly, Simon Hughes has given the Government more food for thought, and he usefully clarified that his new clause 4 would in no way be a replacement for clause 4 but that it would be an additional safeguard. I want to say at the outset that I welcome the Bill’s recognition that responsible journalism should be protected, in the public interest. However, during the passage of the Bill we want to make sure that what is codified is not a step back from the current case law that has been largely welcomed, and we also do not want to give a charter for sloppy, frivolous, inaccurate or sometimes downright nasty journalism.
The clause in effect codifies the defence of qualified privilege established in the judgments in the cases of Reynolds v. Times Newspapers Ltd and then Jameel v. Wall Street Journal Europe, as we have heard. One of the concerns among serious journalists about the current state of the law, and therefore about the construction of this clause, is that the list has the potential to be interpreted by lower courts in particular as an inflexible tick-list: a set of hurdles, each and everyone of which needs to be surmountable before the defence can be deployed.
In his landmark judgment in the Reynolds case in 1999, Lord Nicholls enumerated 10 different matters that a court could take into account in allowing a defamatory article the protection of qualified privilege. They are slightly different from the nine in paragraphs (a) to (i) in subsection (2), but clause 4 seeks to capture their essence. Lord Nicholls made it clear from the start that his list was by no means exhaustive and was meant to be flexible, depending on the circumstances. He said:
“The weight to be given to these and any other relevant factors will vary from case to case”.
That important point was underlined in 2006 in the very different case of Jameel v. Wall Street Journal Europe. The first case concerned an article in The Sunday Times regarding the former Irish Taoiseach Albert Reynolds, whereas the Jameel case concerned a Wall Street Journal article in the aftermath of the events of 9/11 saying that US law enforcement agencies and the Saudi Arabian central bank were monitoring bank accounts associated with prominent Saudi businessmen. The central question was what sort of reporting might be in the public interest, even when the imputations and the allegations carried might be untrue and defamatory. In the Jameel case, Lord Bingham of Cornhill set out very clearly how the Reynolds factors should be interpreted:
“Lord Nicholls....intended these as pointers, which might be more or less indicative, depending on the circumstances of a particular case and not, I feel sure, as a series of hurdles to be negotiated by a publisher before he could successfully rely on qualified privilege.”
That is indeed how the lower courts had interpreted the list. In the Jameel case, the House of Lords was critical of the High Court—in that instance, Mr Justice Eady—and the Court of Appeal in denying qualified privilege on one narrow ground taken from the list.
Indeed, because of the operation of the lower courts, newspapers and non-governmental organisations also prepare for and approach Reynolds defences according to a tick list. That accounts for the complaints about how costly it is in practice to “run a Reynolds”. The likely bill would be calculated by totting up how much it would cost to satisfy the court that each of the 10 factors had been satisfied.
In Committee, the Government said that the wording in the preamble to sub-section (2) of clause (4) already made it quite clear that the list was not exhaustive. The purpose of amendment 9 is to make it even clearer that a court should take all circumstances into account. I admit that the wording is essentially not mine, but is taken from the noble Lord Lester’s Defamation Bill, a private Member’s Bill that gave much impetus to the Bill that we are now considering.
Amendment 10 is aimed at probing, as we did in Committee, whether or not clause 4 is a step back from the case law as it has developed. The right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark mentioned the case of Flood v. Times Newspapers, which came up in Committee. For the uninitiated, that concerned the case of a policeman, Detective Sergeant Gary Flood, who was being investigated internally by the Metropolitan Police over alleged corruption by wealthy Russians but who was later cleared. The central question for the case was whether it was in the public interest for the fact of an investigation to be reported, with the officer’s name, even though the allegations were plainly defamatory and he was eventually cleared.
The Supreme Court found this year that in the circumstances of that case, the newspaper group could rely on qualified privilege. The case is very recent, coming just weeks before publication of the Bill, and I mention it in relation to the amendment because there is concern among serious journalists and defamation lawyers that the clause as drafted is a step back from Flood. Indeed, the case is not even mentioned in the explanatory notes.
The concerns crystallise around the drafting of clause 4(2)(g) and the question of whether courts will require newspapers in every case to investigate and prove the truth of allegations that are subject to investigation—for example, by the police, as they were in the Flood case. As drafted, paragraph (g) appears to go beyond Reynolds, where one of Nicholls’ factors or tests is to “verify the information”, which is a very different thing to verifying the truth of the allegations. That is where the concerns about paragraph (g) lie.
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point about the reporting of investigations, but is not one of the problems with the potential removal of paragraph (g) the fact that it essentially enables journalists to print almost anything, subject to the other conditions, without taking any steps to verify the truth of something that is not under investigation? If the paragraph is removed from the Bill, it will amount to a charter for libel.
The hon. and learned Gentleman makes a fine point. The purpose of my amendment, which I shall not press to a Division, is to probe the Government’s thinking. Other suggestions for amendments were made in Committee and some of those might reflect the judgments given in Reynolds more closely than paragraph (g).
Any decisions by lower courts can be appealed, but going all the way to the Supreme Court is very time-consuming and expensive. The purpose of my amendment 10 is therefore to get the Government to clarify what they mean by paragraph (g) and whether they have fully taken into account the most up-to-date case law, and to give them the opportunity to state to the House that there is no intention that the clause should be at odds in any way with how the “responsible journalism” defence has been developed by the courts over the years.
Amendment 11, which relates to sub-section (2)(h), simply reflects the actual wording used by Lord Nicholls in his list in the Reynolds case, in which the court considered whether a newspaper might reasonably have delayed publication—for instance, to wait longer for a comment from the subject of an article—rather than going to press when it did. The concern in the legal profession about the current wording of sub-section (2)(h) is that it is neutral and does not capture the essence of the urge, or the urgency, to publish. It is a concern for weekly, fortnightly or monthly publications, for example, that withholding a comment can be used to try to ensure that a story does not appear in a particular edition. I shall pray the noble Lord Lester in aid again. Urgency appears explicitly in his list of factors that the courts may take into account. In his private Member’s Bill, he proposed that they may consider
“whether there were any factors supporting urgent publication”.
Amendment 12 is lifted word for word from Lord Lester. It is intentionally broader than amendment 3, which my hon. Friend John McDonnell will speak to shortly. It also seeks to address a concern that was not addressed in Committee. Following the phone-hacking affair and the failure, yet again, by certain aggressive tabloids to put their own house in order, there is now a crisis of confidence in the press in this country. The Press Complaints Commission palpably failed over phone hacking, and in cases such as that of the McCanns. It is broken, and the “son of PCC” advanced by the industry to replace it looks all too much like the PCC itself. The mantra in the industry often seems to have been never to let the editors’ code of practice get in the way of a good story or good business. I am sure that, when Lord Justice Leveson reports next month, he will make similar damning judgments about the practices of the press, or certain parts of it.
The amendment seeks to give statutory recognition, if that is the right word, when newspapers are seeking to rely on qualified privilege, to the importance of journalists following a relevant code of practice—be it their own publication’s code, the editors’ code, one from a regulator or that of the profession. It also seeks to bolster the position of journalists. They are frequently asked by editors to do things that breach those codes: “Leave your morals at home or you’ll be colouring in the black squares on the crossword before we sack you” can instil genuine fear in many parts of the industry. Only editors and proprietors have been consulted on the proposals for the reform of the PCC; journalists have not. I believe that in striving for better quality journalism, we should give good codes of practice more weight. The amendment seeks to do that.
I listened with the greatest possible care to what Simon Hughes said in moving his new clause, but I confess that I was either unconvinced or did not entirely understand the thrust of his argument. I am sure that that is entirely my fault. I also listened with care to Paul Farrelly, and I found him a little easier to follow. Both those contributions have persuaded me, however, that the amendments are not helpful to the wider debate. They have further persuaded me that, if we are to legislate, clause 4 is the way to do it.
Clause 4(2) proposes that, when determining whether a publisher has acted responsibly, the court may have regard to a list of factors, “amongst other matters”. The phrase “amongst other matters” reminds us of the words of Lord Nicholls in the case of Reynolds. His list of factors was non-exhaustive. In an ideal world, however, legislation is not the right way to go about this. The proposals in clause 4 are better to be found in the common law and in the development of case law. I appreciate that if courts are to develop the common law, that leads to a need for litigants to litigate, but such an approach provides necessary flexibility. By setting in stone clause 4, or another version of it, we will face the problem that it might not always be fit to deal with future circumstances. We are probably unwise to be doing that, albeit not so unwise that I would suggest removing clause 4 from the Bill. I do not think that we should have started from where we are, but I did not draft the Bill, and in so far as I had any influence on the people who did so, they sensibly ignored my opinion.
Clause 4(6) states:
“The common law defence known as the Reynolds defence is abolished.”
My hon. and learned Friend rightly reminds us that the judge in that case made the statement about “amongst other matters”. Does he interpret subsection (6) as meaning that no other matter may be brought up by any judge, and that we are left only with what will be the statutory law?
Yes and no. Subsection (2) includes the phrase “amongst other matters”, so it puts what Lord Nicholls said in the Reynolds case into statutory form. I think that it is more sensible to leave this in the form of developing common law, but if we are to set something in stone, clause 4 is better than the somewhat confusing provision tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark.
Bad points are never improved by repetition, but it is a pity that we are doing away with the common law. Although I have lost that battle, I might as well wear my black in mourning at its passing.
Let us not go into it now; we can discuss it another time.
I am the secretary of the parliamentary group of the National Union of Journalists, which obviously has taken an interest in the Bill. Simon Hughes said that this is something of a dress rehearsal for what comes out of Leveson and, as my hon. Friend Paul Farrelly said, there is real concern about the Bill’s practical implications and what might arise from Leveson.
It is clear, as hon. Members have said, that good journalism is essential for a healthy democracy and that investigative journalism plays a vital role. As the right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark said, we have heard today about the worst journalism, in the form of the performance of The Sun on Hillsborough, but there are examples from recent years of the best journalism, such as the exposure of corruption in the House with MPs’ expenses and of ministerial relationships. For me and the NUJ, it is critical that the Bill does nothing to undermine the vital role of good journalism and the contribution that it makes to our society. Of course, it is also important to ensure that journalists uphold decent standards of behaviour, so we must get the balance right, and I have tabled amendments to deal with the Bill’s practical implications on the basis of the way in which journalism operates and the pressures and pace of journalistic practice.
Although I welcome the context of clause 4 and the range of factors of which a court must take account when reaching a decision about the protections of privilege, the measure raises questions about practice on the ground. Subsection (2)(f) deals with the court taking account of
“whether the defendant sought the claimant’s views on the statement before publishing it and whether an account of any views the claimant expressed was published with the statement”.
Amendment 1 inserts a reasonableness test with the words
“within…a reasonable amount of time following initial publication”.
The aim is to broaden the potential for journalists to claim the defence of having contacted the claimant within a reasonable time frame, not necessarily before publication.
We all agree that it is good practice for a journalist to contact the claimant before publication, but that is not always possible for a variety of reasons, some of which relate to the way in which the courts have been used—the threat of a lawsuit or the triggering of an injunction or a super-injunction, and, in some cases, the threat of physical force. Often injunctions are sought by the rich and powerful, who are keen to prevent the publication of a detrimental story, or to delay its publication until they have had time either to hide the damaging evidence, or develop an appropriate public relations strategy to limit the damage. I believe that it should be a defence that the claimant’s views were published either concurrently with or within a reasonable time after initial publication, as existing journalistic codes already demand.
Amendment 2 is designed to acknowledge the fact that that, yes, journalists should take all reasonable steps to check the accuracy of facts, but to recognise also the pressures of a news environment. While rushing to print is no excuse for poor journalism, journalism is part of a commercial operation and getting the story first is often crucial for a newspaper or broadcaster’s commercial viability.
Many years ago, early in my trade union life, the Daily Mail made up quotes, attributed to me, regarding a BBC meeting on a strike issue. When I remonstrated with him, the journalist said, “Oh, come on Denis, it’s the kind of thing you’d have said anyway.” It was, but that missed the point, which was that I had not used those words. I am worried that a future judge, reading my hon. Friend’s speech as he tries to work out how to interpret the clause, will think that it is quite all right to wait until after a story is published to seek a quote. Paul Dacre would thoroughly approve.
I would say that falls on the basis of clear malice on the part of the journalist.
The point of the amendment is to recognise the commercial environment in which journalists work. To have a scoop, it is important to get out there and publish a story. Of course, if there are errors or inaccuracies, there is the opportunity at a later date to publish the appropriate corrections. Often, public interest news stories are perishable, lasting only a limited period. It is important to get a story out there while it can influence the public debate.
Amendment 3 follows on from the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme about codes of conduct. Under the amendment, the courts, when considering matters of privilege, would have to have take into account whether the defendant had abided, or tried to abide, by the standard code of practice, which was introduced by the National Union of Journalists and developed from the 1930s onward. That code of conduct includes a requirement that the journalist
“Strives to ensure that information disseminated is honestly conveyed, accurate and fair…. Does her/his utmost to correct harmful inaccuracies” and
“Differentiates between fact and opinion.”
The NUJ says that within the code of conduct
“material for stories should be obtained by honest, straightforward and open means”.
Only exceptionally in the public interest should any other means necessarily be used to obtain a story.
We all know from the evidence provided to Leveson the pressures that are applied to journalists. Michelle Stanistreet, the general secretary of the National Union of Journalists, presented evidence collected from journalists about the pressures put on them to fail to abide by that code of conduct, which is one reason we tried to amend employment legislation. We wanted the code of conduct to be written into employment law, so that journalists would have protection against wrongful dismissal if they were seeking to abide by the code and refused to write a story that broke it or went against it. This measure is another way of introducing the code in legislation, which we should use to uplift the standards of journalism and give people protection.
“In determining public interest, the court shall have regard to whether the claimant is someone in public life, which should be taken to include (amongst others) politicians, public officials, celebrities and others whose influence, earnings or social status is dependent on a public image”.
I introduce that provision with some trepidation, because it is a red light for any journalist who wants to trawl through my private life to demonstrate how someone could be defended on that basis. I do not have any criminal convictions—I have spent a few nights in the cells as a result of demonstrations and so on—and I have no bizarre sexual proclivities that I am aware of, although I have noticed my wife and her friends reading “Fifty Shades of Grey”, so I shall keep Members updated on that one.
The whole point of the provision is to recognise that there are two different categories of people. Civilians do not rely on their public reputation for their earnings and do not parade their standing or use their public image to that effect. Journalism has a role in exposing the wrongdoings or antisocial behaviour of individuals in public life. It has been an essential part of our democracy for centuries in enabling us to judge whether someone is suitable for public office. That applies too to those celebrities who earn a living from their celebrity status and exert some influence in our society. There is case law on this, including a recent case involving Steve McClaren, in which Justice Lindblom said that it was clearly in the public interest to expose a story about someone whom he described as “undoubtedly a public figure”.
In America, there is a public figure defence, which establishes some form of privilege. That means that someone in public office would have to prove either a reckless disregard for the truth or malice when damaging information is published. Refusing to print corrections or clarifications, for example, would constitute evidence of reckless disregard. My proposal recognises what the public appear to appreciate, even if others do not do so: those who enter into public life should be open to public scrutiny. As long as that scrutiny is honest and produces evidence that can be substantiated, they have to take the rough with the smooth. On that basis, we can maintain both the standards of journalism, by making sure that journalists report accurately and fairly, as well as the role of journalism in exposing falsehoods, lies and corruption.
I shall not press my amendments to a Division. Overall, they seek to put into context the reality of journalistic practice. We live in a fast-flowing, 24-hour multi-media world. There are limited staff resources, and journalism is highly competitive, with immense pressures just to survive. Journalists need protection just as much as other individuals if they are to perform their role in society and if we are to value them as the foundations of our democratic society.
Those associating themselves with the new clause include Sense about Science, Which ?, Citizens Advice, Mumsnet, Nature, the British Medical Journal, the Association of British Science Writers, Global Witness, the Society of Authors and the Publishers Association, and I am sure that many others would do so. If they believe that Parliament should pay attention to what is in the new clause, I agree with them, and I hope that there will be serious discussion about it in another place and before the Bill gets there.
I want to draw the House’s attention to a case whose decision was reported on
Let me return to clause 1, which needs a bit of attention between now and when it reaches the Lords. It says, under the heading, “Requirement of serious harm”:
“A statement is not defamatory unless its publication has caused or is likely to cause serious harm to the reputation of the claimant.”
That is not the best way of putting it. I would say that a defamatory statement is not actionable unless its publication has caused or is likely to cause serious harm to the reputation of the claimant. If something is said not to be defamatory when clearly it is defamatory, that is worth giving some attention to. I was brought up with the idea that a defamatory statement could be actionable only if it fulfilled three criteria: first, that it was not true—I can think of various defamatory things that could be said about me that are true; secondly, that it should be damaging, and I agree that it should be seriously damaging before it is actionable in court; and thirdly, that it should not be privileged. We might have returned to the question of what is privileged had there been other amendments.
New clause 4 relates to what the person who has published the defamatory statement has done after publication—whether they have, at the request of the person who has made the claim, provided an explanation, an apology or a clarification, or whether they have done that without being asked. That should be taken into account. If the new clause is accepted in another place, I hope it will encompass what a respondent has decided to do off their own bat.
To give a small example, the last time I noticed that I was being seriously defamed was when a Sunday newspaper said, in effect, that I was far too close to the IRA. As it happened, the IRA paid rather too much attention to me in my ministerial jobs, but that is a side issue. I rang the editor and said, “What you’ve said is wrong and very damaging. What did you mean to say?” He said, “That we disagree with House of Lords on its decision on Private Lee Clegg”—who had shot somebody—“and we disagree with you appearing at a meeting next Thursday at the Quaker meeting house on Euston road with a senior Sinn Fein person.” I said, “If you put out a statement to the Press Association by lunchtime saying that that’s what you had in mind—if you want to offer me a new lawnmower I would be grateful, but the key thing is to get out a statement today—I won’t take this further. If you don’t, tomorrow—Monday—we will issue a writ and serve it.” That led to a week and a half in the High Court, where George Carman lost a case for his client. I was not his client.
We should be putting pressure on claimants to stay out of court and find a way for courts to throw claims out. The case involving Nature magazine and its comments on the retirement of the editor of Chaos, Solitons and Fractals is the kind of case that even a clerk at the court should have said it would not accept. The first time the judge read the papers, they should have said to the claimant, “Sit down and tell me exactly why you think this needs action in court.”
I draw the hon. Gentleman’s attention to new clause 5, which was tabled by Simon Hughes but was not selected for debate because it was essentially the same as a new clause on early strike-outs that my hon. Friend Robert Flello tabled in Committee. That new clause lost a Committee vote by nine votes to seven, with Conservative members voting against it and Liberal Democrats abstaining. I urge Sir Peter Bottomley to ask the Government to consider that new clause again when the Bill goes to the other place.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention and will end my remarks on this point. It is important that a case does not fall only when it gets to a hearing. At an early stage, a judge should have the responsibility and the opportunity to ask what it is about. If a claimant will not take the advice of a judge, the judge should have the opportunity to refer the case to a small claims court. Once that happens, the small claims court should be able to order a limit on the costs that can be claimed at the end of a case, with or without a conditional fee agreement or qualified costs shifting. We need to cap these things and have a way of laughing people out of court even before they can get a full hearing.
Clause 4 is an important, central part of the Bill, but some commentators believe that, as drafted, it does not represent an effective public interest defence. Others, as we have heard, believe that it should either be amended or improved by new clause 4.
Members will notice that my copy of the Joint Committee’s report is well-thumbed, and I draw their attention to what it has to say about the matter. I am sure that the Minister has already read it, but it would be worth her while to look again at what it says about what was clause 2, on responsible publication. It is important and relates to some of this afternoon’s amendments and comments. It will also elaborate on the Bill and inform views as the Bill makes its way through Parliament.
Today’s has been a good debate, as was the one in Committee, and I begin with a few observations on new clause 4. It was tabled by Simon Hughes but bears an uncanny resemblance to the new clause that I tabled in Committee.
Indeed. As I was about to say, because we both know their provenance, we understand the reasons for that uncanny resemblance, so it would be hard for me not to support new clause 4, especially given that my new clause was withdrawn with the specific intention of fighting it another day.
You will be reassured, Madam Deputy Speaker, to know that I have no intention of rehearsing our discussion of clause 4. Instead, I invite the House to read in Hansard what was said. However, I was dissatisfied with the previous Minister’s assurances on the predecessor to new clause 4, and was not reassured that it encompassed Reynolds, as revised by Flood and Jameel. I hope, therefore, that the other place can pin down the Minister on this matter and get some better legislation out of this.
As I understood the observations of the right hon. Gentleman, new clause 4 is intended as an addition to the statutory version of Reynolds. The existing clause 4 defence would be available to publishers with deep enough pockets who did not wish to publish a clarification, contradiction or, where relevant, a correction. The new clause 4 defence would be available to publishers prepared to correct the record promptly and, if needs be, prominently, and to publish a right of reply promptly and prominently, avoiding the use of lawyers.
As Members on both sides of the House have said, in the internet age, a prompt and prominent clarification, contradiction or correction can be an adequate remedy for non-malicious public interest publication, particularly given that some readers might see an original posting but not a subsequent one. So publishing a correction straight away online is often a good way of doing it—perhaps we could call it a post-publication responsible publication. The Opposition are concerned that we end up with a clause 4 that does the job. As I said, I support the direction of travel in new clause 4, and look forward to hearing the Minister’s comments. I hope to hear something new, not what we heard in Committee, and something from which we can take reassurance.
On the amendments tabled by my hon. Friends the Members for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Paul Farrelly) and for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme, pointed out that the Reynolds list was meant to be flexible, but that this had led to a catalogue of problems. I welcome his attempt to tidy up clause 4 while seeking to probe the Government’s thinking. It is important that the Minister gives us the reassurance and advice we seek.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington outlined the NUJ’s understandable interest. It will have concerns that good journalism will suffer because of the behaviour of bad journalists and the unfair pressure placed on good journalists by editors and owners not as concerned about good journalistic standards as they are about profits and getting the sensational headlines to generate them. I see where he is going with his amendments, and I understand the positive intentions behind them. I suspect that much of clause 4 will need to be revisited following the conclusion of Lord Leveson’s work. It is almost a great pity that the Bill has proceeded so quickly through the House. If it had been delayed, perhaps by a few months, we could have incorporated conclusions and findings from the Leveson inquiry and the inquiry into privilege. It should all be looked at as a package, rather than taking defamation as a stand-alone issue. This is an important subject and the law has not been amended since 1996. All the party manifestos wanted the law amended, but the undue haste of trying to get the Bill through Parliament—specifically clause 4 —means that the amended Bill with its additional new clauses does not currently pass the test of good and effective potential legislation. In the spirit of trying to get a good result, I look forward to what the Minister has to say.
I thank hon. Members on both sides of the House for the kind and generous sentiments that have been directed towards me and the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend Jeremy Wright. My fellow new Minister has been sitting beside me for most of the afternoon, but he has just left his place. It is a great honour and privilege to stand at the Dispatch Box.
New clause 4 and other amendments in the group relate to the defence of responsible publication in the public interest, as set out in clause 4. The new clause represents a significant shift in the law towards the interests of defendants. To obtain any remedy beyond explanation, contradiction or correction, the claimant would have to prove malice—a high test that would require the claimant to prove the defendant’s state of mind, which in many cases is likely to be impossible. It could lead, effectively, to people printing what they liked and arguing it was a matter of public interest.
In his very good speech, my right hon. Friend Simon Hughes mentioned the Flood case, but that does not change the core element of the defence of responsible publication. From my experience, courts will continue to interpret editorial discretion, and I therefore think that the Flood case is reflected in the Bill. My right hon. Friend also mentioned an early strike-out, and again my initial response is that courts already have that power under rule 3.4 of the civil procedure rules, which I have witnessed on numerous occasions. Indeed, such action has been threatened against me, and it can be quite intimidating.
The hon. Members for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Paul Farrelly) and for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) were concerned—among other things—about the narrowness of the list of factors for consideration. The list in the Bill has been drawn flexibly. It is illustrative and not exhaustive, and in any event the court must have regard to all the circumstances of the case.
I will not comment on all the points raised today, but I recognise the wide range of opinions about clause 4 and the issues underlying them. This is a complex area about which there are well-argued and deeply held views on both sides of the House. The Ministry of Justice has a largely new ministerial team, but we are determined to get the legislation right and would therefore like to reflect further in light of the helpful points that have been raised by hon. Members in this debate and in Committee, and by stakeholders more generally. If we conclude that there is a better way forward, we will table appropriate amendments in another place.
I am most grateful to the hon. Lady, and may I say on behalf of hon. Members on both sides of the House that we welcome the approach that she and the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend Jeremy Wright, have taken in picking up this brief and this Bill?
When reflecting with advisers, and hopefully with outsiders, will she ask whether, if the Bill becomes an Act, it would be possible to dispose of the case I mentioned—El Naschie v. Macmillan, the publishers of Nature? Would it be possible to dispose early of the Rath v. Guardian case, the British Chiropractic Association v. Simon Singh, or NMT Medical’s case against Peter Wilmshurst? By the time the Bill gets to the other place and amendments come back to this House, we ought to have an understanding that cases with no merit whatsoever will be recognised as such by the courts early on.
I cannot comment on the details of individual cases, but if my hon. Friend writes to me, I will look at what he says.
In the light of the assurances I have given the House that the Government continue to look broadly at how a public interest defence might be framed, I hope hon. Members agree not to press their proposals to a Division.
I shall be brief in winding up this valuable debate. I am grateful to colleagues, who have expressed different views on how we should proceed. My hon. and learned Friend Mr Garnier said that it would be best to leave it to common law, but the problem with the common law argument, as he conceded, is that someone is required to go to court to take the law on and test the case. Libel and defamation cases are hugely expensive. I and many hon. Members are trying to ensure first that the law is clearer, and secondly that we protect our constituents from having to go to court to assert their rights.
John McDonnell argued for a differential test for those in public life and those not in public life. Those of us in public life are much better equipped and able to go to law if we want to do so. If the bar were to be lower for people in public life, so the capacity to respond would also be easier. I do not necessarily accept that that is where we want to go, but that is another debate. The bulk of my constituents and the hon. Gentleman’s are not in a position readily to go to court to defend their interests, and nor could they get an adequate remedy. The new clause therefore seeks to find a remedy outside the courts.
I hear what my hon. Friend the new Minister says about the level of evidence needed to establish malice, and therefore understand that we need to have a debate on that. However, I am encouraged by the fact that she and her colleagues are willing to draw breath, as it were, and to look at the arguments as they have been presented and at the unanswered questions that both current and previous Ministers have said they will address.
There is one last thing to say before asking the House for leave to withdraw new clause 4. Will Ministers look at the big question of the timetable for the Bill, and particularly this part of it, in the light of the Leveson report? We need to ensure that we are seen to be legislating carefully, but we would perhaps make ourselves look foolish if we tried to legislate this year or a few months into the next year in the certain knowledge that we would need to return to the matter. The House and the Government should reserve a space to legislate in the light of Leveson. It would be unacceptable for anybody in the months ahead to put the argument that we cannot return to the matter because we have addressed it in the Bill.
I suggest to the right hon. Gentleman and the parties that there should be a discussion on the process through the usual channels. I agree that the Bill could be completely abortive, and that we would look ridiculous if we returned to it so soon after it was passed. There is potential for an agreed discussion on the timetable between the parties.
I disagree with the good people on the Opposition Benches. This Bill is about defamation. We know that there will be something on privacy, and we also know that Lord Leveson is likely to talk about the way in which the press and others operate. If this Bill, dealing with defamation, is held up to bring in something dealing with privacy in its own time, we will end up with the kind of confusion that we are trying to get away from.
We are hearing a quick last set of bids for how the Government should proceed. The point that will reconcile those views and mine is this. Although my noble Friend Lord McNally is keen that we should introduce reforms and have a modern law on defamation, the Ministry of Justice should none the less have a wider debate with colleagues in both Houses, particularly in this House, about how that should be achieved, while at the same time ensuring that we do not lose the opportunities to do what Lord Justice Leveson recommends. We need to have that debate. It would not preclude concluding the Defamation Bill, but whether it would include this part of the Bill, for example, or whether we would leave the issue to be addressed in the public interest debate post Leveson is a matter to be resolved. I hope that there is agreement that that sort of conversation could happen. I am sure that Ministers will want to be helpful, and I will certainly talk to my colleagues across Government in other Departments, including the Deputy Prime Minister, and say, “There is an issue here and Government collectively need to address it.” With those words, I beg to ask leave to withdraw new clause 4.
Clause, by leave, withdrawn.