A Town Named Sue: Libel Law Needs Reforming but the Coalition's Bill Won't Do the Trick, Says Geoffrey Robertson

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Britain does not have free speech--it has expensive speech. The Defamation Bill, outlined last month with almost hysterical optimism by Nick Clegg ("We will end the libel farce ... [It] will let the press be free"), will make speech even more expensive, as Messrs Sue, Grabbit and Runne grub around in its statutory interstices for costly new legal arguments. It fails to deliver the reforms most necessary to protect investigative journalism; it does nothing to remedy McLibel-like corporate oppression of critics; and it will produce the near-abolition of the one procedure that has historically protected freedom of speech, namely trial by jury. It is a bad bill and anyone who thinks otherwise is either a libel lawyer or a Liberal Democrat.

Defamation law has been fashioned in a plaintiff-friendly way by judges over the centuries, much to the satisfaction of politicians who have greatly, and often unjustly, profited from its bias against media defendants. (Even John Profumo won damages for suggestions that he was sleeping with Christine Keeler, only a fortnight before he admitted the truth.)

The most important reason for that bias is a judicial fiction called "the presumption of falsity", by which every defamatory statement is presumed to be false, however likely it is to be true. This means that the media defendant must, in court, bear the burden of proving it true--a difficult task at the best of times, made impossible when, for example, witnesses disappear, or sources are abroad or reluctant to come forward. There is no doubt that, as Gatley on Libel and Slander (the libel bible) puts it: "The present rule inhibits the ability of the media to expose what they believe to be matters of public concern." That is why US courts now refuse to enforce English libel judgments.

The Defamation Bill does not make the essential reform of abolishing the presumption of falsity, for no better reason than the bold assertion in its explanatory note that "proving a negative is always difficult". This is nonsense. In all other civil actions, claimants bear the burden of proof, since they are the ones who are using the legal process to drag others into court in an effort to win damages. Unless and until defamation's unique bias towards claimants is removed by making them shoulder the burden of proving their case, no reform can succeed.

No civilised society can permit the privately owned media to run vendettas against individuals who are powerless to stop a flow of falsehoods, but here, too, our judge-made law has failed to produce a speedy or effective procedure that secures corrections and rights of reply, with damages reserved for cases in which claimants have suffered financial loss or have been the victims of malice. The Defamation Bill fails to produce sensible reform to this end. …