Libel reform campaign: the government's draft bill

Following on from Lord Lester's private member's bill of 2010, the government has now published its draft defamation bill.  Along with many other organisations and individuals, Mumsnet submitted oral and written evidence to the parliamentary Joint Select Committee on the bill, and the Committee published its report on October 19 (you can read it here).

We are concerned by the Joint Committee's suggestion that anonymous posts (such as any post on Mumsnet) should be immediately removed following receipt of a libel complaint, no matter how informal or trivial the complaint might be. The Committee also commented that it wishes to change the culture of online comment so that anonymous posts are discouraged. Justine Roberts said:

"With reference to the Committee's recommendation against the right to anonymity, it's clear that people should be prevented from assassinating the character of others from behind the cloak of anonymity, but we are concerned that the Committee's recommendations on anonymous postings fail to recognise their usefulness in allowing people to speak honestly about difficult real-life situations. The recommendations could have a chilling effect on sites like Mumsnet where many thousands of people use anonymity to confidentially seek and give advice about sensitive real-life situations. It would surely not be in the public interest, for example, if a woman being abused by her husband felt she could not seek help confidentially. It is critical, we believe, that the "public interest" recognises individuals' rights to anonymously seek help."

Before this, on 10 March 2011, the Libel Reform Campaign organised a meeting at the House of Commons to allow members of the Libel Reform Coalition to explain to assembled MPs and peers how the current libel laws affect them.

Justine attended on behalf of Mumsnet, and gave a short talk about our experience of being on the wrong end of libel suits, and about how inappropriate the current law is for a site that publishes around 25,000 posts daily.

There were lots of powerful points made by representatives of other organisations.

  • Charmian Gooch, from Nobel Peace Prize-winning organisation Global Witness, explained how the current libel laws make it difficult for her reporters to expose corruption and bad practice by corporations and governments across the world.
  • Naomi McAuliffe, from Amnesty International, explained that the UK arm of Amnesty has to spend thousands of pounds each year getting legal sign-off on campaigns materials - money that could otherwise be spent on Amnesty's core campaigning activity; she pointed out that the UK is the only country in which this needs to happen, because our libel laws are so restrictive.
  • Representatives from Which?, Nature and the British Medical Journal all spoke about having to spike stories that were editorially important for fear of a libel suit by corporations and individuals with deep pockets, or of having to defend libel actions at great expense.

An important point that arose from the meeting was that pretty much everyone agrees that people who feel that their reputation has been damaged should have a right of redress - the libel reform movement is not a charter to defame people with impunity.

Tracey Browne, of Sense About Science, pointed out there are many effective ways of dealing with defamation and libel, including published corrections and apologies, which are both quicker and cheaper (and so more available to ordinary individuals) than vastly expensive and time-consuming libel suits.

But even after a private member's bill and a government-drafted bill, many people remain uncertain about how best to deal with issues arising from user-generated content sites such as Mumsnet and Facebook (which was also represented at the meeting).

The consultation document is seeking people's opinions on this, and is something that Mumsnet Campaigns will focus on.

Finally, we heard from several MPs who pointed out that the libel reform issue, while important, is not one that motivates their constituents. If MPs don't get the sense that their constituents care about an issue, they're unlikely to act on it (unless it's a personal interest of theirs), so we will be asking Mumsnetters to email/write to their MPs once we've had a chance to digest the provisions in the draft bill.

Please watch this space, and keep posting in the Campaigns section of Talk to let us know what you think.

 

Last updated: 26-Apr-2013 at 5:31 PM