Belfast Telegraph

Libel law decision 'unjustifiable'

Northern Ireland could become a legislative backwater and international pariah if the region fails to adopt new laws on libel, a senior peer has claimed.

Lord Black of Brentwood, executive director of the Telegraph Media Group, was addressing the launch of a new bill aimed at bringing Northern Ireland into line with England and Wales.

He said: "Instead of growing alongside and keeping pace with the rapid changes in the media that are transforming all our lives, Northern Ireland risks being cast adrift into a Ruritanian legislative backwater."

Lord Black said the current law as enforced in Northern Ireland was out of date, complex and repressive.

He also claimed failure to adopt the 2013 Defamation Act which was recently passed at Westminster could threaten thousands of publishing and media jobs and would deter investment from companies at the cutting edge of communications.

He added: "This is an issue which is of huge significance for the United Kingdom as a whole but most importantly for ordinary people, jobs and free speech in Northern Ireland.

"Let's be in no doubt, the stakes are very high.

"It is a liberalising, modernising law which will have real benefit throughout our society.

"That is why it is totally unjustifiable and completely inexplicable that people and businesses in Northern Ireland are being excluded from the real benefits and protection it will bring."

The private members' bill is being brought forward by Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt who has launched a public consultation on reform of the current defamation laws.

It comes after former finance minister Sammy Wilson declined to introduce a copy of the new Defamation Act to the Stormont Assembly.

Mr Nesbitt claimed his policy would make it easier and less expensive to take legal action and make it harder for the rich and influential to chill free speech as well as enable journalists to hold the devolved government to account.

In a statement, he said: "Reforming Northern Ireland's law of defamation isn't about protecting the rich and powerful.

"It is about ensuring thousands of jobs are not lost, that the growth potential of our universities is not hampered, and that journalists have maximum opportunity to responsibly hold the devolved government to account."

Libel lawyer Paul Tweed, who also attended the launch at Parliament Buildings, refuted claims Northern Ireland would become a "pariah" state if it failed to adopt the new defamation legislation.

He urged Stormont to consider introducing libel legislation modelled along the same lines as the Republic.

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