Belfast Telegraph

Friday 18 April 2014

Baffling silence on free speech threat

Every day, it seems, we get another example of the dysfunctional nature of government in Northern Ireland. In this case it concerns reforms to the libel laws which are being introduced in Britain.

We accept that this is not an issue which will have the public marching on the streets in protest, but it is important for the protection of free speech and also as an insight in how decisions are made, or not, at Stormont.

There should be a feeling of disquiet about the lack of transparency in government decision making. As our reports today reveal, proposed changes to the libel laws were allowed to wither in some ministerial in-tray. Although Westminster had asked Stormont to consider the matter urgently, and although Finance Minister Sammy Wilson appeared in favour of some changes, the deadline for action was missed seemingly without any discussion.

Perhaps there were good reasons for inaction, but we believe the new Defamation Bill, which received Royal Assent in Britain last month, is a very good piece of legislation and should have been extended to Northern Ireland. With both Mr Wilson's department and the Office of the First and Deputy First Minister declining to comment, we will never know the reasons why Northern Ireland is once again out of step with other regions of the UK. In the US, new laws were introduced to protect Americans from British courts but our existing libel laws mean it is easier to sue for defamation here than in the rest of the UK, which could make us a centre for libel tourism.

The absence of any proper explanation as to why Northern Ireland has turned its back on the reforms is baffling. We would urge politicians to throw their weight behind a Private Members' Bill put forward by UUP leader Mike Nesbitt to have the Westminster reforms introduced here. The reforms do not stop people who have a genuine grievance and want to clear their reputation, but they raise the threshold for taking actions. They also create a stronger public interest defence in defamation cases. Surely, it is in the public interest to reform our outdated libel legislation.

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