The Northern Ireland Finance Minister, Sammy Wilson, could hardly have anticipated the media backlash to what had been a seemingly innocuous decision not to consult with his Assembly colleagues on the introduction of the new English Defamation Act to Northern Ireland.
The Belfast Telegraph, long time standard bearer for their own particular brand of freedom of speech, which does not necessarily mean proportionate coverage, were quick off the mark in questioning the Minister's decision and ensuring that the issue received dramatic headline coverage over a period of several weeks.
Unfortunately, the newspaper had failed to show similar concern about the fact that Northern Ireland citizens have for many years been treated differently from their counterparts in the UK in terms of access to the libel Courts. Unlike the position in England, lawyers in Northern Ireland have in the past not been allowed to act on a "no win no fee basis", nor have After the Event (ATE) insurance premiums been recoverable, thereby making it even more difficult for the ordinary man on the street to obtain access to justice.
However, the Belfast Telegraph and the various lobbying groups may ultimately get their way as a result of the possible introduction of a Private Members Bill following the lines of the new legislation for England and Wales.
While it remains to be seen whether this more publisher friendly legislation will be imposed on the Province, including the requirement that corporations would have to show substantial financial losses in order to get a claim off the ground, the practical result will be that the "libel capital of the world" title may simply pass to Dublin, a two hour drive down the road from Belfast.
Although changes to the libel law have recently been introduced in the Republic of Ireland, the financial cost for a Plaintiff contemplating proceedings still remains a significant deterrent. The Irish Defamation law is to a large extent a compromise between the previously existing and new UK legislation, but the Irish statute treats corporations on the same footing as individuals and retains trial by jury in defamation actions. Juries of course represent the last opportunity for citizens to vent their displeasure with the more rampant excesses of the tabloid press, and have been an important factor in maintaining the balance between freedom of expression and the right of the individual to protect his reputation.
However, it remains to be seen as to which Irish jurisdiction the myth of libel tourism will ultimately have as its preferred foreign destination.