Belfast Telegraph

Libel laws reform are not necessary

By Paul Tweed

As a lawyer of more than 35 years standing, working in Northern Ireland, England, Wales and the Republic, I could only come to the conclusion that your article 'Our politicians need to heed calls for libel law reforms' (DebateNI, March 17) could only have been written by somebody with no experience as a media lawyer here.

Apart from the fact that the number of libel writs issued in this jurisdiction are minimal, the perception given that the majority of people in Northern Ireland (92%) "back the stronger public interest defence protecting science, academia and political discussion in the public interest" is misleading and misconceived.

Most people in Northern Ireland have, understandably, little or no interest in libel law reform, unless their own reputation has come under fire in the press.

Furthermore, I am aware of only one case which could be regarded as relating to an academic publication over the past four decades.

I acted for the publisher in successfully defending the action, a further indication that the current libel laws more than adequately protect academic freedom.

Of more significance is the fact that the majority of my plaintiff clients are, in fact, investigative journalists, who are also entitled to protect their professional reputation.

I have represented four such journalists in as many months and I have acted for a number of newspapers and other publishers.

I think I am in a position to give a reasonably balanced overview of the very few defamation claims that are issued in the High Court in Belfast and to dispel what effectively amounts to propaganda in certain sections of the media.

I am firmly of the view that investigative journalism, together with scientific and academic research, should be protected at all costs. However, calls for the reform of our defamation laws in this regard are neither appropriate nor necessary.

British and Irish newspapers are regarded as among the most credible in the world and this is in no small measure due to our defamation laws, which encourage fair and balanced reporting - although unfortunately this does not necessarily come to pass when commenting on libel law reform.

  • Paul Tweed is senior partner at Johnsons Solicitors

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