Will These Libel Reforms Help Press Freedom? ; MEDIA ANALYSIS

Article excerpt

JOURNALISTS dislike the present libel law. Some of us feel it inhibits our freedom to write what we think the public should know. Others simply feel it prevents them from writing what they want regardless of any public responsibility.

In a single sentence I have therefore sketched out the problem anyone faces in trying to change the law. How can Parliament and the judiciary be sure -- should legislators be persuaded to lower the legal hurdles we face at present -- that an amended law will not end up with the widespread trashing of people's reputations? That difficulty of finding a balance between free speech and the protection of reputations -- whether of individuals or corporate bodies -- lies at the heart of the first really serious attempt to reform our ancient and complex libel laws.

The lead actor in this well-meant exercise is Lord Lester, one of the wisest lawyers in the land with a lengthy and admirable track record of fighting for human rights. He has worked diligently for many months with two colleagues -- Sir Brian Neill and Heather Rogers -- to draft a Defamation Bill which he is aiming to pilot through Parliament from his perch in the House of Lords.

He introduced it formally at a lunch yesterday attended in the main by members of the legal fraternity, including several media lawyers, and also people who have been, for want of a better phrase, "libel victims". They included Simon Singh, the author who was sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association for criticising their activities in a column in the Guardian, and the novelist Jake Arnott, who was sued by a man who thought one of Arnott's characters resembled him enough to bring his name into disrepute. Singh finally won after a long and expensive legal battle. Arnott lost, paying out Pounds 25,000 from his own pocket.

These are reminders that it isn't just journalists who have fallen foul of a law that is in desperate need of reform. There are many creative people, along with academics and bloggers, who have suffered that chilling moment of receiving a writ for going honestly about their work.

So the problem may be clear enough, but what of Lester's Bill? Will it do enough to enhance freedom of expression? Well, I must admit to feeling that it doesn't go far enough. In order to appease critics and, to be fair, giving it a greater chance of garnering political and judicial support, it is, to be frank, too pragmatic.

For example, the single most intractable problem facing newspapers and broadcasters when they are sued for libel is that, unlike every other area of the law, the burden of proof falls on the defendant rather than the claimant.

In practical -- and, most importantly, financial -- terms this places the alleged libeller at an immediate disadvantage. The plaintiff can simply sue for libel and sit back while the other side devote precious resources to mounting a defence that may not even be required because the claimant can pull out whenever he or she wishes. Of course, the claimant may also run up costs, but rich people are quite willing to do that. …