Martin Bright

The Guardian and Libel

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There is a very important piece in today's Guardian about the UK libel laws by my old friend Jo Glanville, editor of Index on Censoship. I urge you to read the article in full.

She argues that the UK's "libel laws remain the most significant daily chill on free speech in the UK". She is right. There are a number of stories that the British press won't touch because the threat of being sued by welathy individuals would be so great. I can think of one such story that I would love to tell you about, but if I gave even the merest hint of the identity of the individual involved I would risk a very hefty libel suit.

The meat of Jo's argument is this passage:

"The key issue is costs. The use of "no win no fee" (conditional fee agreements, or CFAs) has turned libel courts into casinos. CFAs were introduced in 1995 to ensure broader access to justice. But under this system lawyers can charge a 100% uplift on their fees, creating an absurd situation where legal costs can be 100 times the damages awarded.

A recent study by the Centre for Socio-Legal Studies at Oxford University revealed the astonishing fact that the cost of libel litigation in England and Wales is 140 times the average elsewhere in Europe. The introduction of CFAs has clearly had the unforeseen effect of limiting the exercise of freedom of expression in the public interest - and decreasing access to justice for groups that would be ruined by legal action."

The point is that very few newspapers ever fight libel actions. Local newspapers almost never do. Journalists are not made aware that publications routinely pull down articles from their websites at the merest whiff of a lawyers' letter from the likes of Carter-Ruck. In these circumstances, it is a wonder an investigation ever gets off the ground.

I am delighted that the Guardian has published Jo's important piece. I see the paper is planning a series on UK libel law and campaigning for its reform. This is the same newspaper group that pulled down a series of articles by me and other journalists on a matter of serious public interest after a threat from a rich man's lawyers. I pointed this out to a woman from the Guardian who approached me to write for the series. I suggested that perhaps this was the moment for the world to be told the full details of the story they had helped censor. The answer was: "Forget it." I would print the full exchange, but again I would risk being sued.

The point is this. It is all very well blaming the libel laws. And I do believe they need reforming. But newspapers also have a duty to take on seriously rich individuals in the courts otherwise investigative journalism will wither and die.