NORTHERN Ireland’s economy could miss out on major investment if it is excluded from legislation aimed at protecting freedom of speech.
The stark warning from Lord Black, one of the UK’s most influential media figures, was made at the launch of a bill aimed at updating our defamation laws.
He added that companies at the centre of the revolution in digital content are unlikely to invest in a location where the law of defamation is more than 50 years out-of-date.
Lord Black said Northern Ireland risked becoming an “international pariah”. The Defamation Act — the first major reform to our libel legislation for 170 years — came into force earlier this year.
However, it will not apply to Northern Ireland because Stormont blocked it.
Ulster Unionist Party leader Mike Nesbitt (left) has launched a Private Member’s Bill aimed at updating our laws broadly in line with those introduced in the rest of the UK.
Lord Black, who is executive director of Telegraph newspapers in London, claimed Northern Ireland risked becoming a “Ruritanian backwater” with media jobs under threat if changes being made in England and Wales were not matched.
“There are so many benefits,” he said.
“I can only think that perhaps there are some politicians who like the structure and law as it is because it allows them to bully and threaten newspapers.”
He warned the threat of libel action was forcing local newspapers to sanitise their reports or drop investigative journalism.
Meanwhile, Mr Nesbitt said: “Reforming Northern Ireland’s law of defamation is about ensuring thousands of jobs are not lost, that the growth potential of our universities is not hampered and that journalists have maximum opportunity to responsibly hold the devolved government to account.”
Proposals to bring Northern Ireland into line with England and Wales are supported by UK-wide groups including Index on Censorship, Sense about Science and English PEN, as well as our three regional newspapers.
The Belfast Telegraph’s group managing editor Paul Connolly said the issue had important implications for the quality of democracy.
The absence of opposition, the lack of a separate chamber to scrutinise the Assembly and a weak system of local government meant another mechanism was needed to strengthen the civic debate, he said.
But libel lawyer Paul Tweed added: “Scotland are not accepting this, so we’re not this pariah we are made out to be.”
Libel protection or a limit on expressing opinion?
Many consider the UK’s libel laws the most punitive in the western world. President Obama even prohibited the enforcement of UK libel judgements in the US.
The libel laws of England and Wales were reformed earlier this year, when Parliament passed the Defamation Act 2013. It includes measures to weed out trivial claims, to limit libel tourism and introduce a public interest defence. It aims to ensure a balance between the right to freedom of expression and the protection of reputation.
The main points of Mike Nesbitt’s proposals include making it easier to take action in defamation cases, harder for the influential to limit free speech, protect journalists in responsible investigations while including the impact of the internet.