Ian Hislop Warns Against Restricting Press Freedoms
All eyes in Parliament were on the main Commons chamber because the BSkyB takeover deal had just been delayed. Jeremy Hunt was about to appear before MPs to explain the situation.
But up in the committee corridor, one of Britain's most dogged editors, Ian Hislop, was giving evidence to the Draft Defamation Bill Committee. During his time as the editor of Private Eye, Hislop has been sued many times, so he made for a useful and attention-grabbing witness. Inevitably with everything else going on, questions about how the press should be regulated came first.
Mr Hislop said the public wouldn't be happy with either journalists or MPs scrutinising the press, though he admitted to laughter that this was "not a great week for journalists to be taking about privacy".
Asked whether judges should have the power to order journalists to apologise for libellous errors, Mr Hislop said, "It's a terrible idea. I don't think newspapers should have to say something they don't believe."
He added that both payoffs and the timings of apologies by the papers came about by negotiated settlement, and for judges to compel papers to do this would lead to "insincerities".
He complained to the Committee that often scientific discourse was being interpreted as libel, and that a lot of libel cases currently being brought forward relating to scientific research were trivial. He said that scientists should be able "to be rude" about each other's work, without being sued.
Hislop was asked what was currently not in the draft Bill, and what should be in there. He replied that the courts needed to speed up libel cases, because the amount of time being taken to consider them was costing everyone "colossal amounts of money". He commented that libel lawyers - including his own - charge a huge amount of money, suggesting that drawn-out cases benefited only the lawyers.
On the issue of defining public interest, Hislop said judges tended to define it more often than not on the side of the claimant, not the defendant (the newspaper).
He said there was now, in effect, a requirement for newspapers to give the subject of stories advance warning. "It doesn't work," he claimed, arguing that when this happened, many people tended to immediately take out injunctions thereby frustrating what is often in the public interest.
Although he suggested that making these claims on week like this was difficult, he warned against knee-jerk reactions that could restrict press freedom. "When this whole hoo-ha eventually goes away, there will still be a need for journalists to do investigative stories."
MPs are considering in committee whether England's libel laws should be changed, and the Ministry of Justice has its own consultation underway.