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Opinion: “Free speech may be the lifeblood of democracy, but are only the press entitled to it?” Paul Tweed

I would refute Lord Lester’s recent assertion that English libel law is “notoriously costly, complicated and stifling of free speech”.

Watching the intense media frenzy on both sides of the Atlantic over so-called ‘libel tourism’ and reform of our libel laws, it is easy to forget the interests of the ordinary man in the street. It is not so much the international litigant who is likely to be affected by the draconian reforms being advocated in the press, but rather the rights of the individual UK citizen.

At the present time, there is no legal aid available for a defamation action and in some UK jurisdictions conditional fee arrangements are not permitted nor indeed is the recovery of ‘after the event’ insurance premiums. In England, even these latter two options are being constantly challenged (primarily by the press), thereby making it even more difficult, if not impossible, for the average individual to gain access to justice never mind the fundamental right to be heard.

With the media clamouring for action to restrain what is in reality a very limited number of defamation actions brought by international litigants, and the press making self interested attempts to undermine our libel laws, an outsider could be forgiven for thinking that we have a rampant problem stifling not only academic and scientific research, but freedom of speech generally. The reality is of course that the press on both sides of the Atlantic have seen the libel tourism debate as an opportunity to snuff out the last remaining prospects for victims of malicious and shoddy journalism to seek redress.

From time to time, I have been instructed by scientific researchers and academics as claimants who have been defamed by pharmaceutical giants and various publications. Do these people not have rights as well?

Perhaps even more significantly, the largest group of claimant clients for whom I act is made up of journalists, with the second largest group being lawyers. The significance of this being that both these groups will be only too aware when a wrong has been committed and when they should be entitled to redress. This is not the same for the man on the street, who will often have neither the expertise nor financial means to take on the might of the national press.

My fear is that the UK broadsheets – who I firmly believe are among the most credible in the world, primarily on account of our libel laws – are likely to become more like their American counterparts, whose coverage of the libel tourism debate has been at best one sided propaganda. The prospect of securing a right of reply from an American broadsheets is non-existent, as I and many of my colleagues in the US have discovered to our considerable disdain.

Lord Lester talks of freedom of speech being the lifeblood of democracy. However, does this mean that only the press is entitled to exercise this so-called “freedom”, with the ordinary citizen being treated as “fair game”?

Paul Tweed, a media lawyer of more than thirty years standing, is Johnsons Solicitors‘ senior partner and practices from offices in Northern Ireland, England and the Republic of Ireland. He is also registered as a foreign legal consultant by the State Bar of California. He served on the former UK Justice Secretary’s Working Group on Libel Reform, and is acknowledged in Chambers Directory as one of the leading media lawyers in the UK and Ireland, acting for high profile international claimant and defendant clients.

This piece was originally published on Journalism.co.uk and is reproduced with permission and thanks

1 Comment

  1. David Kirke

    So glad to see a lawyer emphasize the all-important basic point I made in the comments on Sarah Ferguson – and, here’s the nub, with more authority than ordinary citizens are likely to feel they are received with in this context. Intriguing and fascinating though the legal world is to its practitioners, there sadly remains large resentment in society as a whole that lawyers are a costly law unto themselves. Of course you will be familiar with this, but it remains beyond our control and you are probably the only people who can do anything about it. With kind regards and best wishes, Yours sincerely, David Kirke.

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