[Mr. Frank Cook in the Chair] — Libel Laws

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:00 am on 17th December 2008.

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Photo of Norman Lamb Norman Lamb Shadow Secretary of State for Health, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Health) 10:00 am, 17th December 2008

I congratulate Mr. MacShane on securing the debate, which is on an incredibly important subject. I look forward to hearing the Minister's response to the extremely important points that were made on the phenomenon of libel tourism. Mr. Pelling also made some important points on the protection of individuals against irresponsible journalism, and I absolutely accept his concerns.

I apologise for the fact that I must leave before the end of the debate, but I have a long-standing commitment to meet. I warned you of that earlier, Mr. Cook.

I have two reasons for contributing to the debate. First, I have an interest in, and commitment to, the incredibly important principle of freedom of expression. Secondly, I have an interest in serious and responsible investigative journalism. Those two things are essential to the proper functioning of a liberal, democratic society. It is essential that journalists are able to perform that function, to root out wrongdoing, whether it is by Government officials, politicians or private individuals, and to hold Governments to account. As the right hon. Gentleman indicated, it could protect us from harm.

There are widespread concerns among journalists and others that the UK libel laws, combined with the cost of defamation litigation, act as a constraint on, and an impediment to, the effective and legitimate work of investigative journalists. Those concerns have been heightened by the application of libel law to those who contribute to the internet and those who write blogs. I have no interest in people who make wild allegations that are not supported by facts. They do not deserve the protection of the law.

I shall offer one case study—I stress that I do not know all the details or the full story—that illustrates how the threat of defamation proceedings using, primarily but not exclusively, UK libel laws may succeed in closing down legitimate inquiry and reporting. I should also stress that I do not want to use this opportunity to take advantage of the privilege that we enjoy to make fresh allegations against any individual.

The case involves Nadhmi Auchi, whom the right hon. Gentleman mentioned. He is a British citizen—an Iraqi exile—and he is reported to be a multi-billionaire. He was convicted in France in 2003 of fraud in a trial involving the oil company Elf. Importantly, he continues to assert his innocence of the charges—there was a conviction, but he is pursuing routes of appeal against it. He was barred from entering the United States in 2005. My interest in the matter is in his connections to Tony Rezco, who was convicted of fraud, money laundering and bribe-related charges in Illinois, and who is currently in prison pending sentencing. We understand that sentencing has been delayed, and it has been suggested that he should talk to federal prosecutors, especially about allegations against Illinois Governor Blagojevich, which are being investigated. There is political interest in the US because of the connections between Rezko and President-elect Obama. I make no allegation at all relating to the latter.

There have been reports that a company related to Mr. Auchi registered a loan of $3.5 million to Tony Rezko on 23 May 2005. That and other alleged connections are obviously of great interest to investigative journalists and others. More to the point, it is legitimate to investigate such a matter, given that Mr. Auchi is a prominent British citizen with political connections in this country and overseas. As I said, it is not appropriate to go into more detail, but it is alleged that Mr. Auchi and his lawyers, Carter-Ruck, have been making strenuous efforts to close down public debate. Of course, it is absolutely legitimate for any citizen to demand accurate and rigorous investigation and reporting. The question is whether UK libel laws have the disproportionate effect of discouraging legitimate reporting. Many believe that they do.

On 28 June, Private Eye reported Mr. Auchi's instructions to Carter-Ruck. The article states:

"Carter-Ruck's first target was a series of revelatory articles"— concerning Mr. Auchi—

"printed in the Observer in 2003, which American bloggers and journalists were starting to notice."

Later, however, the article states:

"You will search in vain now, however, to find most of the Observer's reports."

Those reports were from five years ago. It has been reported in the US that Carter-Ruck has been writing to US and British newspapers and websites demanding removal of the material that it deems defamatory of its client. Many are concerned about the fact that creating a link on a blog to a newspaper article, which may have been available for several years to anyone searching the internet, can result in action being threatened or taken. Is that legitimate? Alternatively, should a blogger be able to rely on the journalistic integrity of reliable news sources when a story has already been published and when it has existed for several years?

What steps should be taken? A doctrine arising from Reynolds v. Times Newspapers Ltd and others, 1999, seeks to protect serious investigative journalists. Guidance given during that case, as I understand it, included 10 principles that investigative journalists should follow. However, subsequent cases appear not to have applied the principles as intended by the Reynolds guidance, and the protection offered to serious, investigative journalists has not been as great as had been anticipated following the judgment.

Jameel and others v. The Wall Street Journal Europe Sprl, which was heard in the House of Lords, reasserted the importance of the principles enshrined in the Reynolds judgment, and there is some evidence that courts' interpretation of the principles appears to have improved since. However, the question is whether those principles should be enshrined in statute to give them greater force and clarity. Is there also a case for looking at the burden of proof? I make no judgment about what ultimately should happen. I suggest that this is an appropriate area for consideration by a royal commission.

This is a legitimate area that needs consideration. As the right hon. Gentleman said, it is a long time since libel laws have been looked at and further consideration is long overdue.