The campaign for libel reform scored a victory today when justice secretary Jack Straw announced that the government would begin working on reforms to England’s defamation laws, possibly through a libel reform bill.
The move came as the campaign organised a “mass lobby” in the Houses of Parliament, asking supporters to all request a meeting with their MPs at the same time to discuss the issue.
Straw accepted many of the recommendations of the Ministry of Justices Libel Working Group report, including creating a “single publication rule” to prevent claimants from bringing a separate claim for every time a story is read on the internet. He would also like to create a statutory public interest defence, and curb the spread of “libel tourism”, where claimants press their case in the English courts because they offer the most sympathetic venue.
Straws announcement is a start, but the campaign still has much to do. David Howarth, the Liberal Democrat MP for Cambridge, said he was concerned that the governments proposals did not include putting peer-reviewed publications on the list of those protected by qualified privilege, or ending the right of corporations to sue for libel.
No more will be done in parliament before this springs election, though Straw promised to table a draft bill as soon as possible in the new parliament, should Labour win. His conservative shadow, Henry Bellingham, also promised to produce a draft bill by the end of the year if the Tories form the next government. But he urged campaigners to continue their efforts, perhaps suggesting that he would need their support to keep the issue on the agenda for a Conservative government.
My own MP, Labours Neil Gerrard, who signed the early day motion in favour of reform back in December, told me in the House of Commons central lobby this afternoon that it was possible that the proposed reforms would be included in the Labour Partys manifesto. “Jack has moved,” he said. “Hes saying positive things.” Indeed, just a year ago, Straw rejected the need for libel refrom, saying libel tourism was not a problem. He was apparently convinced by the case of Peter Wilmshurst, a British cardiologist who is being sued by a US company for comments made to a US website casting doubt on the effectiveness of a device made by the company. Straw called the case a “gratuitous disruption of scientific research”.
Even if the a reform bill does not make it into the next governments programme, Gerrard suggested that a private members bill would have a good chance of success, since all the main parties are broadly in favour.