Following Nick Clegg’s announcement of a draft Defamation Bill to be published in the Spring, in response to unprecedented pressure from the media and following what has been one of the most successful US lobbying campaigns since that initiated by the tobacco industry some years ago, it will be interesting to see the reaction to what has been a totally unjustified clamour for reform.
I say this particularly bearing in mind the embarrassment caused to the American lobbyists and legislators as a result of the recently published statistics establishing beyond any doubt that, contrary to press speculation on both sides of the Atlantic, the number of international libel claims brought before the UK Courts has been miniscule, thereby further exposing the totally disproportionate response to what is, to all intents and purposes, a “non issue”.
Of even more significance will be the attitude of our Courts to future requests for enforcement of US judgments against UK citizens and companies in cases involving grossly excessive punitive damages and attorneys’ fees, the latter often amounting to almost fifty percent of the damages awarded. To reverse the argument put forward by the lobbyists in the US Libel Tourism debate, such judgments would never be countenanced by a UK Court and the scale of such awards are offensive to all basic principles of British law.
If we are to believe everything we read in the press and the extensive coverage of the so called libel tourism problem, then you would think that the UK Courts were being besieged by multiple claims from numerous international litigants seeking to obtain justice by the back door, which is of course nonsense as the facts and figures have now established. The truth of the matter is that the media have seized upon an opportunity to snuff out one of the last opportunities for the general public to seek redress from an increasingly reckless press, who already have the financial clout to see off any unfortunate individual having the temerity to take them on, unless that individual is a man of substantial means.
Unfortunately the powerful lobbying platform enjoyed by the press is not available to the supporters of our Defamation laws, in what has been, at best, a one sided debate in the media. Indeed, the so called “chilling effect” referred to by Mr Clegg is in reality inflicted on the man on the street, whose options for seeking vindication of his reputation and the truth are now more limited than ever.
The irony is that the UK broadsheets are generally regarded to be among the most credible and respected in the world, which is in no small measure due to our fair and balanced libel laws!
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.
With all due respect to the Brits reading this blog, I feel I must speak out about the American view of libel tourism. The reason The Speech Act was passed by Congress was to prevent Americans and US publishers being gagged overseas and having their free speech thereby threatened in the US. As everyone knows, the catalyst for this was Rachel Ehrenfeld’s case. It just so happened her book was about terrorism and this obviously sparked the interest of Congress. It would not have taken much lobbying. If it were not for this case and 9/11, I am sure nothing would have happened.
You have to understand why America is what it is and how the government works. I will try to be more restrained than in previous comments. America is the first and only country in the world created so people can live as freely as possible with minimum government intervention. That was the idea some 200+ years ago and it remains, even with a Congresswoman fighting for her life in Arizona. If someone else in the world is affecting American citizens’ rights to live freely and exercise their civil rights, then the American government is there to help. Its critics will say, too eager.
Congress moved quickly on this because free speech is such a fundamental civil right, sacred in America and there was political agreement. Maybe you have to be borne and raised here to understand it. And it was not just directed at English libel judgments. A New York Times journalist is being sued for libel in Brazil and Time Magazine was sued for libel in Indonesia a few years ago. It might be helpful to note that in some jurisdictions, including some European ones such as Denmark, libel is still a crime.
I think it is important to also emphasize and remind all the Brits reading this blog, the majority for sure, that the brave souls who created America were your English ancestors! It was an English Civil War in a colony. Simple as that. Not a very foreign concept. So, looking at laws in America is a bit like looking into the soul and psyche of every Englishman. Something to ponder on this very snowy day in Massachusetts.
Sarah Palin is now talking ‘blood libel’ referring to her critics blaming her for the tragic events in Arizona. Brace yourselves for the biggest public debate on free speech the world has ever heard.