Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 17 April 2014

Mike Nesbitt's libel law reform plan for Northern Ireland hit by delay

Mike Nesbitt: Support has come from well beyond the media, and includes professionals in academia and medicine
Mike Nesbitt: Support has come from well beyond the media, and includes professionals in academia and medicine

A Private Member's Bill to extend new Westminster legislation on defamation to Northern Ireland will be stymied pending a report from the Law Commission, it has emerged.

The delay was confirmed as the public consultation period on the Bill, introduced by Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt, came to a close yesterday.

Finance Minister Simon Hamilton has asked the commission to examine whether the UK law should be extended here amid claims if it is not, we could become a centre for "libel tourism" and enjoy less Press freedom than in Britain.

And his decision has led to speculation that he may be prepared to take a different approach from his predecessor, Sammy Wilson, who insisted that fears of less freedom here if the Bill wasn't extended were a "load of nonsense".

A statement from Mr Hamilton's department yesterday said: "The minister has no preconceived ideas about what its recommendations will be.

"As with any other Law Commission Report, the recommendations will have to be thoroughly assessed, with a view to making final policy recommendations."

Warnings that Belfast could become the new libel capital of the world have also come from Irish authors including Roddy Doyle, Father Ted writer Graham Linehan and former Beirut hostage-turned-writer Brian Keenan.

Mr Nesbitt said: "Support has come from well beyond the media, and includes professionals in academia and medicine, two areas where research could be badly impacted by the lack of the 2013 Defamation Act.

"But as minister Hamilton has requested a report from the Northern Ireland Law Commission on the Act, I cannot progress a Private Member's Bill until that report is completed and we hear the minister's reaction.

"I shall input my consultation findings into the Law Commission process."

DUP minister Mr Hamilton, who hopes the report will be finalised in months rather than years, said: "I want to bring a fresh pair of eyes to this issue." In a letter to First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, authors Doyle, Linehan and Keenan, along with Belfast historian Paul Bew, and writers Bernard MacLaverty and Colm Tóibín, warn: "Northern Ireland may become a new forum for libel bullies.

"As writers, we are particularly concerned about the impact of the unreformed libel laws on the freedom to write.

"The mere threat of a libel action is also enough to discourage publishers from touching controversial subjects," their letter adds.

Former Finance Minister Sammy Wilson, however, said the Executive should "wait and see" whether libel tourism develops here.

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