New libel legislation in the UK has a number of flaws and offers little help to investigative journalists, says libel doyen Paul Tweed.
When will the full impact and consequences of the new Defamation Act be known? I predict not for some time, at least until the Courts have given their initial interpretation of what constitutes “serious harm”. But, there is no doubt that most people will already have been discouraged from embarking on libel proceedings. They cannot fail to have been dissuaded by the intense and aggressive campaign by certain sections of the press in the period leading up to the introduction of this legislation.
Politicians always have an election at the back of their minds - and placating the press on whose support they depend – and so they do not appear to have given the necessary consideration to the difficulties in establishing “serious harm” under the new Act.
It was always on the cards that the press and various “free speech” lobby groups would succeed in persuading, or should I say intimidating, the Government into raising the bar for individuals and corporations before bringing a defamation action. The result? Now, only the very wealthy and very brave are likely to be prepared to take their chances in the UK libel Courts. However, it is not only the general public who are likely to face this potentially insurmountable obstacle, but nobody has spared a thought for investigative journalists. They are often at the receiving end of defamatory and abusive attacks by disgruntled readers who did not like the journalist’s exercise of “press freedom”.
In the past I have been criticised for opposing reform of our defamation laws, in the belief that that my clients are primarily international celebrities or “libel tourists”. In fact, my largest group of clients are journalists who are coming more and more into the firing line from bloggers and abusive tweets. Although these dogged individuals have always been at the forefront of the battle for free speech, they are, ironically, now amongst the losers. In my view some journalists as well as the man on the street can effectively forget about protecting their reputation in the coming years, as a result of these totally unnecessary changes in the defamation laws,
During the course of my career I have also been consulted by individual academics and scientists, whose reputations have been questioned or undermined by work colleagues or employers. However, I have never been involved in a claim where such an individual has been at the receiving end of a libel writ. I do appreciate that there have been several high profile law suits against members of the scientific community, but these are few and far between. Surely this does not justify such an extensive and fundamental overhaul of the entire defamation legislation, when a simple, and specific, amendment would have sufficed?
The official statistics have revealed that only a nominal number of libel actions have ever been brought by “libel tourists” and oligarchs. Accordingly, against this background I have to ask “who are the intended beneficiaries of this draconian reform of our libel laws?”
It appears that there can be only one answer: the press and the online bloggers!
At a time when the “wild west” of the internet is rapidly spiralling out of control, the biggest irony of all is that it is the bloggers who are now being protected.
The author: Paul Tweed is one of the world’s highest profile Libel and Media Lawyers – www.libelexpert.co.uk for more than twenty five years, achieving record damages for clients. Clients have included Britney Spears; Louis Walsh; Harrison Ford; Michael Jackson; Jennifer Lopez and Liam Neeson. He heads up the Media and Dispute Resolution departments of Johnsons and practices in the jurisdictions of England & Wales, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. He is also registered as a Foreign Legal Consultant by the State Bar of California.