THE BLOG

Libel Reform Threatened by Tory Ploy to Protect Corporations From Criticism

15/04/2013 11:21 BST | Updated 12/06/2013 10:12 BST

The reform of English and Welsh illiberal libel laws is once again under threat. Having survived an attempt to wreck the Bill in the name of press regulation, amendments that would dilute the Bill's provisions on corporate bullying threaten to undo years of progress towards free debate.

Sir Edward Garnier MP seeks to remove the requirement that corporations demonstrate financial damage before being able to sue for libel. The abuse of our current libel laws by companies to chill criticism is a well-documented source of the chill that said laws create - exploiting the inequality of arms they enjoy over individual writers, bloggers, scientists and the like, companies sue (or merely threaten to sue) for libel to silence those whose thoughts they find inconvenient. The (ultimately unsuccessful) attempt by American corporation NMT to silence the heroic medic Peter Wilmshurst is a case in point - a bullying claim brought to stifle legitimate criticism, made possible by the laws that permit companies to sue without showing that they suffered any real financial harm.

Such cases are all too common, and would continue if the Bill's provisions to require companies to demonstrate "substantial financial loss" are removed as Garnier would have it. Should Garnier succeed in removing the limit on companies suing, the Lords could insist on it being reinstated during Parliamentary ping pong - but I understand from a government source close to the process that this is most unlikely, especially given that the limit on companies was added to the Bill with the slimmest of margins.

A further dilution of the Bill would occur if Garnier gets his way - the acknowledgment in statute of the "Derbyshire principle" that public bodies (local authorities etc) should not be able to silence their critics through libel would be removed. Again this threatens to retain the chill on scrutiny, this time of public institutions - again, this is unacceptable.

The libel reform campaign is understandably angry at these proposed changes, and has encouraged supporters to contact their MPs and the Prime Minister and his Deputy. I've done so, writing to Iain Duncan Smith, David Cameron and Nick Clegg - I've linked to the letters, and will post responses as and when I receive them.

The ability to discuss and debate freely, without the threat of illiberal libel action hanging over us, is a fundamental freedom that we must defend - should the Defamation Bill be amended as proposed, progress towards that freedom will suffer a substantial blow.