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Defamation Act must be extended to end Northern Ireland's embarrassment

By Paul Connolly

Published 20/04/2015

It was only a matter of time before Northern Ireland's antiquated libel laws ran up against the fairer system that ordains in England and Wales. And now it has happened.

Sky can't broadcast a separate TV signal for Northern Ireland, so it looks like it may have to postpone or even cancel the UK transmission of a serious HBO investigative TV documentary watched by 5.5 million Americans.

Our claimant-friendly defamation laws would, it appears, put Sky at a risk of being successfully sued in Belfast by the leader of the Church of Scientology, David Miscavige, and others from that religion.

That risk is much greater than in England and Wales, where the Defamation Act 2013 provides a fair balance between freedom of expression and the individual's right to their reputation.

The 2013 act brought the law of England and Wales into the 21st century. Northern Ireland's laws are inspired and framed by the conservative views and practices of the 1950s. Little wonder that many plaintiffs would prefer to sue here than over there, where the playing field is decidedly anything but level.

The DUP and Sinn Fein blocked the routine extension of the Defamation Act to Northern Ireland, for reasons only they really know. Currently a campaign is under way to get that changed (disclosure: I'm a member of the steering committee). A similar campaign is under way in Scotland where the law, whilst not as unfair as in Northern Ireland, also requires updating. In Britain, the law now includes a 'serious harm' test, a better public interest defence, protections for web hosts and privilege for peer-reviewed academic papers.

It would be the 'serious harm' and 'public interest' schedules that would give Sky added protection in England and Wales but which are not adequately available in Northern Ireland.

Freedom of expression is the fundamental springboard of any democracy.

All other laws were talked and written into existence because freedom of expression existed to gave them space to blossom and grow.

There will be other cases of plaintiffs suing in Belfast because it's easier. There will be other occasions where editorial judgments will be affected because of Northern Ireland's laws.

It's time to extend the Defamation Act 2013 across the Irish Sea and end an embarrassing anachronism that serves a few vested interests but does a great disservice to civic society generally.

Paul Connolly is Readers' Editor of the Belfast Telegraph. He is also a freelance multimedia journalist.

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