Thursday, March 7, 2013

Libel Reform, And Why It Matters To Britain

The risk of libel reform failing is not one that any Briton should find acceptable. The damage our libel laws have caused over the decades is immeasurable, and has only increased since the advent of the internet.

Mouth wide shut
CC-BY Soumyadeep Paul
Now the vastly overdue libel measures that would bring the UK out of the 19th Century, and into at least the 20th Century, are on hold and may falter, due to the intervention of Lord Puttnam, and his inclusion of statutory regulation of the press in the bill.

Sure, there could now be a list of examples of Libel tourism, and how stupid it makes Britain look bad, internationally, but instead how about a real-life libel law situation, and how it restricted and hampered an attempt to participate in government?

Almost a year ago, a submission was made by me to a Consultation run by the UK Intellectual Property Office. One of the topics was Compulsory licensing using performing rights societies. Naturally I – as a keen observer of the situation, and a vocal supporter of the truth – decided to point out the many flaws with such agencies. In doing so, it began a headache-inducing debate about libel, and secrecy.

At heart were reports of misdeeds by collecting societies around Europe, and how they’ve been perceived over the past few years. Yet these never made it to the officially published version of the response. They were censored because of libel fears.

Let’s put this in perspective. Submissions to a UK Government agency were censored because of fears by that agency of libel action against them. This was disclosed through emails and phonecalls with the IPO in July and August 2012. However, the original, uncensored version was available on the net, and had been since March 2012.

What was censored? Some opinions, but mostly it was a lot of links to news stories, but also at least one reference to a ruling by the European Court of Justice. For those that don’t know UK Libel law, something that’s immune from libel prosecutions are reporting on actions in court.

To put it another way, the IPO was so afraid of libel, they censored everything that they thought MIGHT be possibly libellous, even stuff that’s legally exempted. They’re also a 3rd party, distributing a user-generated submission, and that in itself should garner some sort of protection, but doesn't. I can be sued for disseminating his words, and the IPO can be sued for disseminating his words.

This is the problem with libel law as it is now in the UK. People are so afraid of it that they’ll go to extreme lengths to avoid even potentially running afoul of it. As it stands, it’s two weeks shy of a year since it was first published. The statute of limitations for libel in the UK is a year. Despite the fears of the IPO, there’s been no comment, no lawsuits and no adverse reactions in that year.

In many cases, it’s not the libel case itself, it’s the chilling effects of having to defend against one. Rather than take that risk, we have (self-)censorship. That’s not good for democracy, or for the UK.

This is just one example, but it shows the corrosive effect the antiquated British libel laws have on society. It’s up to the Government to get it sorted, and soon, because this is a problem that’s already long overdue for a fix.

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