Belfast Telegraph

We’ll pay high price if free speech laws undermined

By Paul Connolly

The local debate over freedom of speech versus even more restrictive defamation laws has really started to take off. And it’s a very healthy thing to watch.


In spite of the ending of the Troubles, Northern Ireland is a very newsy place for its size and I sometimes fear the media skips from item to item too quickly and doesn’t pause often enough for in-depth analysis.

So it is good to see that the debate over Stormont’s outright refusal to transfer across the UK Defamation Act has not been a flash-in-the-pan. In fact, it’s gathering steam, both locally and across the water.

As I wrote here last week, my contention is that freedom of speech legislation is even more important in Northern Ireland, because of the democratic deficit hardwired into the local political system — ie no Opposition, no scrutiny chamber in the legislature and weak local government structures. There is a distinct feeling that the local political classes actively prefer to continue with, or even extend, the province’s outdated libel laws, because it shields them from forthright criticism from the media, the public and civic society in general.

Sammy Wilson had a pop at “shoddy journalism” during the week and, fair enough, there have been times when the local media has let itself down.

However, this is nothing like the frankly disgraceful corruption and law-breaking of some UK tabloids.

Additionally, whatever settlement emerges from the Leveson debate will put an end to slipshod, or reckless, reporting.

Northern Ireland is heading for legal backwater status if the Defamation Act stalemate continues.

UUP leader Mike Nesbitt’s private member’s Bill to extend the UK Defamation Act to the province is, therefore, a progressive piece of political thinking from a journalist-turned-politician with a keen understanding of the totality of implications of this  piece of legislative myopia.

Do we really want to stifle scrutiny of political, scientific and business affairs in Northern Ireland? Do we really want to put off US technology companies from investing here? I think not.


Apologies are due to readers who have spotted errors and inconsistencies. A supplement entitled ‘100 Things to do this Bank Holiday Weekend’ did not contain 100 things to do, nor anything like it. It should have, of course, and I have taken steps to make sure, if it’s published again next year, that it does list 100, or more, things to do.

An incorrect crossword solution was also printed. Readers have made helpful suggestions as to how to stop this happening again, including numbering the crosswords. I will look into this and report back.

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