Clause 10 — Action against a person who was not the author, editor etc

Part of Oral Answers to Questions — Prime Minister – in the House of Commons at 6:01 pm on 12th September 2012.

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Photo of David Morris David Morris Conservative, Morecambe and Lunesdale 6:01 pm, 12th September 2012

It is an honour to be the first Back Bencher called in this debate, Mr Speaker.

This is an important debate, and it is a privilege to have been able to follow the Bill from its early stages in Committee to Third Reading. I thank the many journalists and eminent lawyers, both practising and in academia, who have given me their valuable contributions along the way, as well as the benefit of their knowledge and expertise in this area.

Media law is a dynamic area of the law. Indeed, Lord Justice Leveson is due to report in the coming weeks on press ethics. Today we have seen the damage that the media can do. Earlier this afternoon, the Prime Minister made a statement to the House and informed right hon. and hon. Members that the headlines in The Sun in 1989 about Hillsborough were untrue. I am pleased that the then editor, Kelvin MacKenzie, has now issued an apology. It is my opinion that such comments should never have been made in the first place.

I have said previously in the House that reforming the law of defamation is of paramount importance. In fact, I was asked during the summer why the Defamation Bill was proceeding through this House, and I said that the law of defamation was case-driven. Indeed the definition of defamation is to be found in the 1936 case of Sim v. Stretch, in which Lord Atkin said:

“Would the words tend to lower the plaintiff in the estimation of right-thinking members of society generally?”

If a judge is to interpret the will of Parliament, I think it only fair that we update the existing statute to reflect the will of Parliament, particularly given the emergence of the internet and social networking.

I am somewhat surprised that Lord Atkins’s definition of defamation has never been placed on a statutory footing, although I suspect lawyers would argue that that definition is well settled. The purpose of the Bill is not to have a chilling effect on the freedom of speech; it is about encouraging academics to publish their work without fear of defamation actions, and allowing journalists and broadcasters to report, as long as they do so in a responsible manner.

The Bill is about responsible publication, not about chilling publication. I made the point in Committee that images should be brought into the scope of the Bill. I am pleased that I have received confirmation that they are within its scope, as has been the case for some time in common law, namely in the case of Tolley v. J.S. Fry and Sons. Additionally, I have read the words of Lord Bridge in the Charleston case and recognise the important distinction, which he highlighted, that articles should be read as a whole. If a reader glances at a photograph and draws a conclusion, that does not make them a fair-minded reader.

I have previously stated in the House that I am an opponent of so-called libel tourism. For many years, libel tourism has been a burden on our civil legal system. Media lawyer Ursula Smartt said that

“in September 2010 the Daily Telegraph reported that libel challenges by actors and celebrities in the London courts had trebled over the past year.”

London has been described as the libel capital of the world. At the simplest level, libel tourism takes place when foreign citizens conduct actions against foreign citizens in British courts. Perhaps libel tourism is a result of the extraordinarily high damages that are often awarded. I am pleased that the Bill will make it difficult for litigants not based in the UK to bring actions to our courts. I am pleased that clause 4 incorporates the so-called Reynolds defence—a very useful defence that encourages investigative-style journalism. It is important as part of our democratic process that politicians and those who hold public office are held to account.

Simon Hughes suggested that post-Leveson we might have to legislate in some of these areas if Lord Leveson recommends such new legislation. However, I will not presume to second-guess Lord Justice Leveson, and I await his report with interest.