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The UK libel reform bill and the self-regulation of the press in light of the public interest

The UK libel reform bill and the self-regulation of the press in light of the public interest

The UK government's libel reform bill, anticipated in March, has sparked considerable debate about the impact that libel law (and reform) have on the public. The public's interest and ease of access to justice were the focus of the event "Libel Reform: in the public's interest?", held on January 11th by the Media Standards Trust together with Gray's Inn and INFORRM, the International Forum for Responsible Media.
Chaired by the lawyer Helena Kennedy, the panel discussed the affordability of libel claims, the difference between individual bloggers and large media organisations and whether libel is too "claimant friendly", as well as standards in journalism and alternative dispute resolution mechanisms.

"Libel law isn't on the National Curriculum, but it's something that will become increasingly relevant to UK citizens, whatever their educational or training background. That's because more and more of us are publishers now, whether through email groups, Facebook pages, Twitter accounts or blogs. Defamation is a tricky part of English law anyway, made even more complicated by online technology", says Judith Townend reflecting on what emerged from the panel discussion.

The aim is to propose a libel reform bill that reflects the online digital age, which should take into account the liability for online content, a definition of what counts as publication, as well as the boundary between slander and libel in defamatory online comments.

To balance the right of the public to easy access to justice, offering an affordable and fast resolution of libel cases, with the risk of having a too "claimant friendly" approach, penalizing journalists' and bloggers' right to free speech, is not at all easy.

Another issue is not to differentiate between big news organizations and individual bloggers regarding their potential to defend themselves in libel suits.

One of the points of debate, analysed in the panel discussion by Kevin Marsh, executive editor of the BBC College of Journalism, is the statement that in the internet age "once a person has been libelled, he or she stays libelled more or less forever".

Gavin Freeguard, reviewing the MST event, cites the story of the writer and blogger Zoe Margolis, who also spoke at the conference. Margolis was libelled by the Independent on Sunday last year when the paper incorrectly titled a piece authored by her "I was a hooker, but became an agony aunt."

Margolis - reported Freeguard - "agreed with Kevin Marsh that once libelled on the internet, you were libelled forever - her inbox was flooded with Google Alerts from around the globe, and the stories started to dominate any search results containing her name. She knew an apology on page 47 would make no difference, so sued the Independent on Sunday as publicly as possible to make sure the libellous title was pushed down by other more 'substantial' stories about her and her work".

Margolis' action was possible due to the CFA (Conditional Fee Agreement), an alternative method to fund litigation in which the solicitors share the risk in that if a case is lost the solicitor will not be paid but if the case is won the solicitor will charge a success fee. Without CFA Margolis couldn't have afforded the suit.

As noted during the panel, Razi Mireskandari, managing partner of Simons Muirhead & Burton, the proposal in the Jackson Review for limiting CFAs would, if adopted, make it very difficult for a claimant to bring a defamation action.

Of particular importance for bloggers and social media users, argued Townend, is the proposed change to the multiple publication rule, whose content has already been analysed by INFORRM. As the law stands, each time a page is downloaded from the internet it would count as a new publication, which gives rise to a new cause of action. If the proposal is accepted, for online publication a single publication rule would be introduced, meaning that a claimant could only sue for defamation once, within a one year limit.

In the UK the press, besides the law regulation of the press regarding libel and defamation, adopted a self-regulatory system, constructed during the 1990s.

"In essence, the model for self-regulation of the press is straightforward: the industry has drawn up a Code of Practice and updates it from time to time, and possible breaches of the Code are considered by the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) which makes rulings and enables resolution of complaints, imposing sanctions if necessary", says the "Self-regulation of the press" report by the Culture, Media and Sports Committee of the House of Commons.

Recently the PCC's operation was subject to a review relating to its governance and its effectiveness. A special review panel has produced a report whose recommendations have been considered by the PCC itself.

Whenever talking about law or self-regulation system, the UK is now facing a serious revision about how to maintain and uphold standards of news as well as provide a modern legislation adapted to the digital era of the 21st century.

Sources: Press Gazette, Media Standards Trust (1), (2), Journalism.co.uk, BBC Blog, UK Parliament (1), (2), PCC (1), (2)



Federica Cherubini


2011-01-14 16:48

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