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115 Scots writers including Ian Rankin and Val McDermid demand reform of defamation law

Writers want reform of 'antiquated' defamation laws that 'threaten freedom of speech'

Published 18/11/2015

Ian Rankin
Ian Rankin
Scottish mystery writer Val McDermid. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Scores of Scotland's most celebrated writers have joined a campaign to reform the country's libel laws.

Ian Rankin, Neal Ascherson, Val McDermid, Chris Brookmyre and James Kelman are among 115 writers urging Scottish politicians to adopt legislation similar to Westminster's 2013 Defamation Act.

This is the act that modernised England and Wales' outdated libel laws – but which has been controversially blocked from transferring across to Northern Ireland by the DUP and Sinn Fein.

In a joint letter organised by freedom of speech organisation Scottish Pen, the writers warn that they - along with campaigners, scientists and journalists - are facing the "chilling" effect of libel action threats.

Their plea has been backed by Glasgow newspaper The Herald, which has launched a Freedom of Speech campaign, aimed at reforming Scotland's libel laws.

The writers' letter, published in the Herald today, says: "In England and Wales, citizens now have more freedom to debate the issues that matter to ordinary people.

"Unfortunately, MSPs have never been given the chance to address this area of law.

"Citizen campaigners and investigative journalists in Scotland can still face defamation threats from wealthy individuals and companies who do not care to be criticised, and there is now a risk that libel tourists will start bringing cases to Edinburgh."

The writers and the newspaper say Scotland's law has not been reformed in over 20 years – long before the internet was a reality to everyday people.

"A modern and open nation like Scotland deserves a defamation law that is fit for purpose in the 21st century: one that acknowledges the existence of the internet, and enables journalists and authors to conduct a robust debate on matters of public interest," the letter adds.

The 2013 Defamation Act introduces a “serious harm” test for legal actions for defamation, and makes it harder for companies to sue for libel unless they can show they have lost money.

It also gives added protections to academic studies and introduces a 'single publication rule' to stop aggressive plaintiffs suing over multiple publications on the internet and elsewhere.

Scotland's Law Commission has already signalled that the country's libel laws are potentially not appropriate and in need of reform.

The Scottish Government says its position on libel reform is "under review".

A spokesperson for Scottish Pen told the Herald: "The current disparity between Scottish and English law continues to cause confusion on both side of the border, forcing publishers, journalists and writers throughout the UK to be more risk averse to avoid being sued in Scotland.

"We currently have a two-tiered system that opens up writers, journalists and publishers throughout the UK to undue threats that severely limit what can be published, as they are open to the threat of defamation in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

"This is a chance for Scotland to take the lead to call for fair and transparent guidelines that maintain robust public interest protections and fully take on board online and social media publications that can encourage similar actions to take place in Northern Ireland.

"Only then can we be sure that the UK remains a safe and free place for journalists, writers and publishers to operate."

After the controversy about the Northern Ireland Executive blocking the transfer of the Defamation Act, Stormont asked the NI Law Commission to look into libel reform. But the commission was axed before any report could be forthcoming and it now appears to be in a kind of limbo.

Commentators warned at the time that the Executive move was a tactic to kick the issue into the long grass in the hope of defusing the controversy.

Ulster Unionist MLA Mike Nesbitt has proposed a private member's bill which would have the effect of transferring the 2013 Defamation Act to Northern Ireland.

Earlier this year the UK screening of a globally-acclaimed documentary on Scientology was withdrawn because Sky couldn't block the broadcast to Northern Ireland and it was felt that local plaintiff-friendly libel laws would have triggered a defamation suit in Belfast.

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