Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 24 April 2014

Stormont must not turn its back on reform of libel

Out of touch: Our libel laws
Out of touch: Our libel laws

Readers of newspapers and news websites, particularly of the more serious kind, tend to be people who care passionately about the political and civic health of the area in which they live and work.

These audiences include a much higher percentage-share of voters than the overall population and they are more likely to engage with, and participate in, civic society in general.

Northern Ireland is, of course, no different – people who regularly consume news-based media are normally the best-informed and most engaged section of the population when it comes to affairs of state. In this context, the flat refusal of Stormont to extend the Defamation Bill to Northern Ireland should be a cause for serious concern for readers of papers and news websites.

This concern should be further heightened by the unique political system in Northern Ireland, because we have a distinct lack of the checks and balances written into normal political systems.

There is no Opposition at Stormont to hold the governing parties to account.

There is no second chamber in the legislature – such as a House of Lords, or Senate – to scrutinise, amend, delay or disrupt.

Although coming reforms will improve the situation, the system of local government is toothless, fragmented and startlingly powerless. In that context, the task of scrutiny falls to civic groups like trade unions, business leaders, the law and the voluntary sector.

And also, very importantly, the media, which also serves as an echo chamber for these civic groups.

This is where the Defamation Bill comes in. Britain's archaic libel laws were a laughing stock.

In the US, laws have been passed prohibiting the enforcement of UK libel awards precisely because of the discredited UK defamation system.

The Defamation Bill modernises Britain's legal system and contains significant safeguards for freedom of expression and the ability to scrutinise. Meanwhile, whatever settlement arises from the Leveson Inquiry will ensure the Press (for that read the national tabloids) can never again disgrace their profession. But if Stormont gets its way, the Defamation Bill will never be extended to here.

Northern Ireland will be left with its current, unique system, which I believe to be unfit for purpose in the modern world and a serious impediment to both freedom of expression and the health of our civic life.

Belfast will become a global libel tourism capital and Northern Ireland's reputation as a modern, forward-thinking place in which to do business will take a severe knock, particularly in the United States. We must not allow political short-sightedness and self-interest to trump common sense.

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