It is wrong to treat free speech as being a superior or primary right in a democracy as some reform campaigners have. Many of the values underpinning free speech – truth, individual autonomy and development, the maintenance of a democratic society – also underpin reputation itself. We should value robust protection for reputation for many of the same reasons that we value free speech itself.
Moreover, reputation is specifically protected by Article 17 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and through the Strasbourg Court’s interpretation of Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). We must be careful not to make changes that risk under-protecting this right..
The notion that English libel law is uniquely draconian and hence some kind of ‘global disgrace’ or ‘laughing stock’ as the Libel Reform Campaign (LRC) has repeatedly insisted, is straightforwardly false. In fact most major Commonwealth countries have followed the English Reynolds model – protecting responsible publication in the public interest. This approach is also clearly in harmony with that of the European Court of Human Rights, which has repeatedly stressed the duties of journalists to engage in responsible journalism and check stories carefully before making allegations, even where politicians are concerned. In contrast, the US Sullivan model has been rejected by nearly all major Western countries; none of them skew the law so far towards free speech and away from reputation. This does not mean that English libel law should not be reformed; but any reform must start from the fact that it is already firmly in the moderate mainstream of comparative free speech law.
The often-invoked criticisms by the UN Human Rights Committee of English libel law relate partly to procedure and costs and not substantive law. Insofar as they relate to the law, they make very little sense: if the UK were to follow their (tentative) proposals, it would probably place itself in breach of Article 8 ECHR – scarcely a desirable outcome in human rights terms. Moreover, since English libel law strikes more or less the same balance as those in a great many other Western democracies, the UN would appear to be requiring change in the laws of all such countries – a scarcely plausible conclusion.
The LRC has proposed a new defence in the Bill, which would radically tip the balance in favour of free speech; its approach apparently has the support of Ed Milliband and other MPs. It would relieve any media (or other) body from liability in defamation, for false and defamatory statements, however grave the allegations made, provided that three conditions were met: (a) the statement concerned a matter of public interest; (b) it was not published maliciously (i.e. it was honestly believed to be true at the time and not published in reckless disregard of its truth); (c) once the error was realised, a retraction or correction was published promptly and with “adequate” prominence. Unlike proposals to add specific areas of privilege (e.g. for academic journals) this defence would be of enormous breadth.
In its favour is that it would incentivise the prompt retraction or correction of false allegations – which is what most claimants want. However, there are two key objections to it: first, it would seem likely to encourage irresponsible journalism. It is notable that the BBC has attracted enormous criticism for its Newsnight programme wrongly linking Lord McAlpine to child abuse allegations. But the BBC would undoubtedly fulfil the three tests above (honest belief, public interest, swift retraction). So this proposed reform would remove from all journalists the very obligations of responsible journalism that the BBC has been so universally condemned for failing to follow.
The second objection is that the proposed reform may well violate Article 8 ECHR. The proposal would deny a remedy for a claimant who had received a prompt retraction, even where he or she had suffered serious and identifiable damage before (or after) the retraction came. An example would be a person wrongly accused of being a paedophile who was quickly found and lynched by a mob, suffering serious physical injury and trauma. A retraction would be little comfort and would not in itself vindicate Article 8. There is Strasbourg case law holding that inadequate remedies can violate Article 8 itself. Moreover it would seem unjust and disproportionate to bar all such claimants from taking legal proceedings on the basis of a retraction only, regardless of what damage they have suffered.
The other proposed reform in this area has been put forward by Lord Lester and Sir Brian Neill – and this Committee has urged Lord McNally to consider it. It would require only that the publisher honestly and reasonably believed publication to be in the public interest, plus a prompt retraction/apology. In my view it would not improve clause 4. If it were read in a media-friendly way so as to largely remove the responsible journalism requirements, it would risk breaching Article 8 ECHR. However, the courts, to avoid this would probably “read into” it the existing Reynolds requirements of responsible journalism – since the Convention itself requires such a standard, and the common law would guide the interpretation of the statute. Law governing Convention rights should be as clear as possible. This amendment, far from making the law clearer would, in the short term, create great uncertainty. In the longer term, following expensive litigation it would probably end up looking very like Reynolds.
In the clause 3 honest comment defence, the Government has removed the current common law requirement that the comment must be on a matter of public interest. This is an ill-considered change made from the draft Bill. It may suggest that defamatory comment upon private life requires no public interest to justify it, which is plainly not in accord with the Strasbourg approach and is objectionable in principle. It might even be read to mean that such defamatory comment should never attract liability, which would raise a strong risk of breaching Article 8. Moreover it would raise a complex set of interpretive questions concerning the interrelationship of clause 3 with the law governing misuse of private information, which would have to be worked out through expensive litigation. It is thus undesirable in principle, risks violating Article 8 ECHR and will create needless complexity. The public interest requirement should therefore be restored in clause 3.
The Bill fails to make any changes to the way the law deals with corporate claimants. This is incoherent, given the law’s new orientation around human dignity and Article 8 ECHR. Moreover, the vast majority of cases concerning abuse of libel law to silence NGOs, consumer groups, scientists etc, have involved corporate claimants. The quickest and easiest way to deal with recent abuses of libel law would be to place stringent restrictions upon the ability of such claimants to sue in libel.
This is a summary of the evidence given by Professor Phillipson to the Joint Committee on Human Rights. The full evidence can be found here [pdf].