UK Defamation Reform, Leveson & The Blogger Question

After 170-years, The UK Has A New Set Of Libel Laws.

After 48 months of lobbying, three public consultations, two working groups and seven parliamentary debates, the UK defamation reform bill passed in the UK’s House of Lords. Leading up to yesterday’s vote, speculation swirled as to whether or not the law would even be introduced for a vote. But it was, and it passed, so, sayonara 170-year-old UK libel laws. Congratulations Brits, you’ve finally lost your title of the “libel tourism capital of the world.”

Lord Lester’s UK Defamation Reform Bill

Venerated UK human rights lawyer, Lord Lester, is the political spearhead of the UK’s defamation reform bill, though the movement included other politicians, citizen activists and media watch groups. For nearly half a decade, defamation reform advocates pushed to:

(1)    bolster free speech protection for the press – including bloggers and online media outlets;  and

(2)    diminish the number of libel tourism lawsuits filed in UK courts.

In order to achieve the above goals, Lord Lester’s libel reform bill bars foreign parties from bringing lawsuits in a UK court unless the plaintiff can prove “serious harm” and more than a tenuous connection to the nation. In addition, the bill allows for “fair comment” as an acceptable defense to defamation charges. Moreover, the bill includes stipulations that corporations would have to show “substantial financial loss” in order to win a defamation lawsuit.

What Got Knocked Down In UK Defamation Reform?

UK libel reform advocates, however, didn’t get everything they desired.  An amendment that would have prevented third parties, which do contract work for government, from suing critics without proving “substantial financial loss” was shot down. Most reformers are disappointed about the omission of the third party clause, but are nevertheless pleased that the bulk of their bill will become the law of Her Majesty’s land.

The Rocky Road To UK Defamation Reform

Before yesterday’s vote, British free speech advocates clamored for UK defamation reform – and the road to reform was bumpy. The News International Phone Hacking Scandal was perhaps the most derailing event faced.

News International Phone Hacking Scandal

Two years ago, just when it looked like the Lord Lester’s defamation reform bill would sail through Parliament, the News International Phone Hacking scandal broke. The incident prompted an inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the British press.

Chaired by Lord Justice Leveson, the investigation was divided into two parts. The first dealt with “the culture practices and ethics of the press, including contacts between the press and the police” and potential corruption when it came to “warnings about media misconduct.” The second part, due to commence in the coming months,  will look at “the extent of unlawful or improper conduct within News International [and] other media organizations…It will also consider the extent to which any relevant police force investigated allegations relating to News International, and whether the police received corrupt payments or were otherwise complicit in misconduct.”

Leveson part I public hearings were held between 2011 and 2012. The first findings were published in November 2012. The central suggestion proffered in the first part of the Leveson report was the establishment of a new self-regulatory press agency to replace the current Press Complaint Company – the media monitoring body that was severely criticized in the wake of the phone hacking scandal. Like the PCC, the proposed new media self-regulatory agency would be funded by membership fees; each outlet would have a representative on the new body’s board as well. The only real difference between the old and new agency is that the Leveson inspired PCC would be able to fine entities, dole out other types of sanctions and run an “inquisitorial arbitration service.” They also want to be able to impose “exemplary damages” to entities that don’t participate in the new PCC. In other words, the agency would have more actual power.

Will Proposed New Leveson Agency Still Make Bloggers Personas Non Grata Despite Defamation Reform ?

Many support the creation of a new media monitoring agency in the UK. However, detractors aren’t thrilled about how the Leveson committee’s proposed agency could hurt bloggers and online outlets disproportionately.

Kirsty Hughes, CEO of Index of Censorship, explained that Leveson’s recommendation hurts bloggers and smaller online media outlets because it “introduces a layer of political control that is extremely undesirable” because the fees to join the proposed agency are out of reach to the average blogger. But Leveson suggests that those who don’t participate in the monitoring agency should be subject to higher fines and stricter sanctions. Hughes went on to highlight the absurdity of the stance, reminding that it’s asinine for bloggers to be forced to participate in a regulatory body “that was not intended for them in the first place.”

UK Defamation Laws vs. US Defamation Laws

Before the UK House of Lords homologated Lord Lester’s bill, UK libel laws were stunningly plaintiff-friendly. In fact, they were so claimant-leaning, in 2010, the U.S. passed the SPEECH Act as a way to protect American citizens from being financially pummeled in a UK defamation lawsuit that didn’t adhere to First Amendment standards.

Click here to read more about UK defamation law.

Kelly Warner handles all manners of international defamation lawsuits and litigation. If you’re a company or a private citizen in search of international defamation litigation counsel, please get in touch today.

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