Belfast Telegraph

Mike Nesbitt: Law needs updated to give media tools to do their job in digital age

By Mike Nesbitt

There is an old adage in journalism - "if in doubt, leave it out". A very good reason for editing your work before publishing is the fear of being sued. That is why the law of defamation is so important and why I feel it is imperative Northern Ireland updates and modernises its law, which currently pre-dates the invention of the internet.

Surely the fact the law was written before the age of Twitter, Facebook and the other social media sites is argument enough to support a review.

Defamation isn't the sort of topic you're likely to hear discussed over a Friday night pint, or by the water cooler at work, yet it is important for a bunch of reasons, not least the fact that the current law in Northern Ireland makes it very difficult for individuals to seek the redress they are entitled to if subjected to inaccurate and damaging comment.

Conversely, it is too easy for the wealthy to threaten media outlets with expensive court action should they publish.

Assessing the number of defamation actions in our courts is no true guide to the need for reform, because that does not take account of the number of times media outlets have "left it out", rather than get embroiled in legal action with potential costs that could threaten their very existence.

There is an undoubted "chill factor" at work and as a broadcast journalist there were many occasions when I did not report what I felt was a matter of fair comment and public interest simply through fear of ending up in court, arguing against a set of laws that fail to offer a proper balance between free speech and appropriate protections for the reputation of both individuals and organisations.

England and Wales revised their laws with the 2013 Defamation Act.

Our Executive could have followed suit, by simply adopting the same legislation, but the minister with responsibility for defamation chose not to consult his Executive colleagues.

Instead, Sammy Wilson opted to make Northern Ireland a place apart with regard to defamation, for the first time since Stormont and Westminster introduced the same legislation in the 1950s. So much for consensual, coalition government.

To date, Sir Patrick Coghlin's public inquiry in the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme has shocked and surprised with its steady flow of unedifying revelations about how our last Executive - or parts of it - did business. The inquiry offers a level of scrutiny previously unseen since devolution was restored in 1998. But public inquiries are rare, expensive and highly focused in scope.

Normally, we have precious little scrutiny of the work of our Executive, when it sits. There is no second, reforming chamber at Stormont as there is in London and Dublin; there is no guarantee of an official opposition should the Executive reform, and for those reasons and others, the media's role is even more important than elsewhere in Britain and Ireland.

We need to afford the media the tools to do the job.

Law reform is equally important to our universities and research institutions.

The 2013 Act in force in England and Wales makes it much easier for academics to make adverse comment on products and services offered by multinational companies, whereas the same academic comment made from our local universities could result in an expensive appearance in court.

On top of that, the difference in our laws endangers current jobs in publishing and broadcasting, deters inward investment from media platforms like Twitter, Google and Facebook, and chills the warm welcome we attempt to offer the creative industries.

Should the Executive and Assembly ever return, I am ready to proceed with a Private Member's Bill to accommodate the change in the law that logic demands.

Unusually, there has already been a full consultation process, commissioned by the now defunct Law Commission, and a draft bill is written up and ready to go. You may call it a small step in the drive to modernise Northern Ireland. I call it essential.

Mike Nesbitt is an Ulster Unionist MLA and former journalist

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