The manifestos of the three largest political parties have now been published. All make some reference to the reform of the law of libel. In strictly alphabetical order, the “manifesto commitments” of the parties are as follows.
The Conservative Manifesto tells us, at page 90, that they will “replace the Human Rights Act with a UK Bill of Rights” (note that this used to be a “British Bill of Rights” but has now become UK wide) and that
“We will review and reform libel laws to protect freedom of speech, reduce costs and discourage libel tourism”.
This seems a sensible and unexceptionable commitment – although we have, on a number of occasions (for example in our post “Libel Tourism: the facts“) expressed scepticism about the extent of the “problem” of libel tourism.
The Labour Party Manifesto says, at page 63
“To encourage freedom of speech and access to information, we will bring forward new legislation on libel to protect the right of defendants to speak freely“.
We note the reference to “access to information” and wonder why only “defendants” are going to be protected – presumably the intention is to protect “everyone’s right to speak freely”. Once again, bland but unexceptionable – although it can fairly be asked why the Labour Government has not noticed the need to reform the law over the past 13 years.
Finally, 0n page 93 of their manifesto the Liberal Democrats promise to:
“Protect free speech, investigative journalism and academic peer reviewed publishing through reform of the English and Welsh libel laws – including by requiring corporations to show damage and prove malice or recklessness, and by providing a robust responsible journalism defence”.
This is more precise, more accurate and more problematic. How, for example, is a “peer viewed” journal to be identified – is publication in the “peer reviewed” “Journal of BNP Studies” (reviewed by BNP supporting academics) to have protection? If not, where is the line to be drawn? And, in relation to corporations – bearing mind that malice is almost impossible to prove in ordinary cases – does this mean that they have no protection for their reputations against defamatory attacks? How does a small food manufacturer accused of selling adulterated food by a newspaper which claims to have “confidential sources” defend its reputation? We look forward to thought through responses during the election campaign.
We note the (correct) reference to the law of libel as being Welsh as well as English. Reform of libel law does not, unfortunately, appear in the Plaid Cymru manifesto.
Overall, it is good to see libel reform on the political agenda – though we doubt whether it will feature in the leaders debate – we do hope that there is some informed discussion of the points between now and 6 May.