The Libel Reform Campaign welcomes the Government's commitment to a Defamation Bill but current proposals do not yet address the extensive problems of libel bullying and the chill on public debate
The Ministry of Justice has published a statement in response to the report of the Joint Scrutiny Committee on the Draft Defamation Bill last year. Its commitment to a Bill is welcome recognition of the serious problems faced by NGOs, scientists,
bloggers and authors -- problems set out in wide-ranging evidence by the Libel Reform Campaign and by hundreds of individuals and organisations.
The Government has said it will make changes to introduce a single publication rule and reduce libel tourism and has proposed many beneficial and well-grounded changes to procedure and existing defences.
However, the Government's initial response falls short of what is needed in some important areas:
The current libel laws chill speech on matters of public interest and on expressions of opinion on matters in the public realm. We need a new effective statutory public interest defence. Instead, the Government is only proposing minor changes
to an already complex, unwieldy and expensive defence, called Reynolds Privilege .
Libel laws are used by corporations and associations to squash any criticism and manage their brand. The laws need rebalancing to protect the ordinary individual or responsible publisher, by restricting the ability of such non-natural
persons to sue for libel or threaten to do so.
The law allows trivial and vexatious claims. There should be easier strike out of trivial or inappropriate claims at an early stage.
Jonathan Heawood, Director, English PEN:
We have heard overwhelming evidence from scientists, bloggers, investigative journalists and authors that libel law urgently needs to be reformed. Our view is that the Government's initial response falls short of what's required for a bill that
addresses their concerns. It's hard to understand this diluted response to the public and parliamentary calls for meaningful libel reform.
John Kampfner, Chief Executive, Index on Censorship:
We are disappointed to learn that the Government does not intend to address corporations' use of libel laws to silence criticism in the defamation bill. There are numerous recent instances of corporate bodies and other organisations intimidating
individuals who submit their products and practices to scrutiny. We urge the Government to take the opportunity to introduce measures that would constitute a fairer remedy.
Dr Evan Harris, policy advisor to the Libel Reform Campaign:
We need reform that not only provides clear and effective defences to frivolous and chilling libel actions but also sufficiently high hurdles before people are dragged into expensive court actions so that vexatious or trivial libel suits are
Update: Scientific Journals to be Exempted from Libel Claims
Scientists and academics could be given greater protection from libel claims under changes being considered by Ken Clarke, the Justice Secretary. He told MPs that articles in peer-reviewed journals could be protected as a result of the draft
Julian Huppert, a Liberal Democrat who sat on the parliamentary joint committee which examined the Bill, raised the issue with Clarke in the Commons. He said the committee recommended that qualified privilege should be extended to peer-reviewed
academic articles in journals.
Huppert asked Clarke:
Do you agree that it is in the public interest for scientists and other academics to be able to publish bona fide research results without fear and that, unless the publication was maliciously false, they should be protected from defamation
The Justice Secretary replied:
We are proposing that peer-reviewed research should be protected and we are now obviously considering the draft of the final Bill in the light of the joint committee's report.
Police are continuing to voice concerns about new laws targeted at offensive behaviour and religious hatred in and around football grounds.
They warn that there is still confusion around areas such as the definition of sectarianism.
As the contentious Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Act 2012 comes into force today, the organisation representing rank and file police officers -- the Scottish Police Federation (SPF) -- said earlier
misgivings had not changed.
Brian Docherty, the newly installed chairman of the SPF, said doubts remained, particularly around the definition of sectarianism. He said:
Reservations are still there. But the law has passed and we now have to run with it regardless of concerns over impact on resources.
Pubs across Scotland could close unless the Government spells out to landlords what constitutes an offence under new laws designed to tackle football-related bigotry, trade lobbyists have warned. inShare2 Custom byline text: GERRY BRAIDEN
With arrest rates for sectarian behaviour expected to accelerate after the Offensive Behaviour Act receives Royal Assent, the country's largest licensed trade group fears hundreds of bar and pub owners could become collateral damage.
The Scottish Beer and Pub Association (SBPA) has joined a long list of other parties asking for clarification on matters such as what songs and slogans are in and out and has asked for ministers and the police to provide real-life scenarios of
situations which could unfold in licensed premises.
The Government has said the police's football co-ordination unit was already setting up meetings with licensing authorities to discuss the implementation of the legislation.
In his letter to Community Safety Minister Roseanna Cunningham, SBPA chief executive Patrick Browne said that as long as it was unclear how the laws would impact on the trade there was a high risk a licensed premise could find itself being
reported to the local licensing board which could then sanction their premises licence, with implications for the business .
He added: Given the new and very specific nature of the offences under the new Act relating to licensed premises, it would be helpful for my members and licensees more generally to have further guidance from the Government as to which types of
behaviour on their premises would be unacceptable under the terms of legislation. This would assist them in fulfilling the expectations of licensing boards and the police more generally.
The ASA is now investigating Snickers' digital advertising campaign - in which Ferdinand, Price, Ian Botham and X Factor finalist Cher Lloyd posted messages on Twitter promoting the chocolate bar. They all received payment from the chocolate
bar company to do so.
The ASA is now investigating whether the celebrities' first teaser tweets should have indicated that they were part of an advert and whether the final reveal tweet alongside of themselves holding the chocolate, made it clear enough
that the tweet was an advert.
The promotion of the chocolate bar via Twitter also ignores the Office of Fair Trading's advice that celebrities should make it clear when they promoting or endorsing a product. The OFT has warned companies that deceptive advertising has
to stop. An OFT spokesman said: Online advertising and marketing practices that do not disclose they include paid for promotions are deceptive under trading laws.
The National Secular Society has submitted a response to the Police Powers Consultation, calling on the Government to remove insulting from Section 5 of the Public Order Act. A change in the law would protect freedom of expression for
both the religious and non-religious. It would also lay down clearer guidelines for the police and direct them to focus on more serious cases.
The submission calls on the Government to recognise that the word insulting sets the bar for criminal offence far too low. The risk of being arrested can in itself have a chilling effect, preventing people from expressing legitimate views.
Section 5 would retain threatening and abusive conduct to cover serious offences and there are other existing laws to protect the individual.
Section 5 of the Public Order Act currently states that it is an offence to use threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour, or displays any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening,
abusive or insulting within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby.
The NSS submission makes the case that insult is too subjective and nebulous a concept, and therefore open to abuse, partly because a subjective response is hard to challenge. It also identifies a growing trend to claim offence on behalf
of a religion.
Other organisations such as Liberty, Justice, the Christian Institute and the parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights are also calling for the removal of insulting . The law must recognise that groups like the Christian Institute
have a right to freedom of expression but it must also ensure that insulting cannot be used by the religious to prevent debate, analysis or criticism.
Section 5 has been used against religious campaigners against homosexuality, a British National Party member who displayed anti-Islamic posters in his window and people who have sworn at the police. A teenage anti-Scientology protestor was
arrested, as was a student for calling a police horse gay . Both were released without charge but changing the law would make guidance for the police clearer. At the moment, there is evidence that some officers are not clear about what
does or does not constitute an insult.
The removal of the word insulting from section 5 would also bring English law into line with Scottish law, which works effectively without criminalising insulting . For example, the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening
Communications (Scotland) Act 2011 explicitly excludes insult from the list of banned behaviour.
A public online consultation has been launched asking for views on the implementation of two new powers designed to spoil people's fun and depress the late night economy.
The measures, contained in the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011 and due to be introduced in the autumn, will empower local killjoys by:
allowing local authorities to charge a levy for late-night licences to contribute to the cost of extra policing
extending Early Morning Restriction Orders -- a power that will allow licensing authorities to restrict the sale of alcohol in all or part of their areas -- to any time between midnight and 6am
The consultation asks whether some types of premises should be exempted from the new measures, or eligible for a reduction in the levy, if they are judged not to be major contributors to the type alcohol-related crime and disorder that can blight
neighbourhoods. Such premises could be hotels, cinemas or community venues.
Minister for Fun Prevention Lord Henley said:
Alcohol-related crime and disorder is a problem for many of our communities. These new measures give power back to local areas so they can respond to their individual needs.
But we also recognise that some types of premises that open late to serve alcohol do not contribute to late night drinking problems and should not be unduly penalised. That is why we are seeking views on whether they should be exempt or see a
reduction in fees.
We are keen to hear from anyone who is affected by these new powers to help inform our plans to ensure the premises we have proposed are the right ones.
The public, licensing authorities, the licensed trade and police are all encouraged to contribute their views.
Tessa Munt (Wells) (LD): I was shocked to discover that mainstream terrestrial television carries adverts for online bingo at 5 o'clock in the afternoon and that 31 hours and 55 minutes each week is dedicated to live casino betting and
gaming, which has been classified as teleshopping since 2009. At a time when there is £ 1.45 trillion of personal debt in this country and when we are encouraging people to be moderate in their expectations and
behaviour, will the Prime Minister please protect consumers, children and the vulnerable from this kind of activity by asking for a review by Ofcom---
The Prime Minister : The hon. Lady raises an important issue about gambling advertisement on television. I am all in favour of deregulation and trying to allow businesses to get on and succeed. Gambling programmes and betting advertising
were not permitted until the last Government allowed them in 2007 and they are strictly regulated by Ofcom and the Advertising Standards Authority. It is not just a question of regulation, as it is also a question of responsibility by the
companies concerned. Anyone who enjoys watching a football match will see quite aggressive advertisements on the television, and I think companies have to ask themselves whether they are behaving responsibly when they do that.
Meg Hillier (Hackney South and Shoreditch) (Lab/Co-op): On the subject of gambling, Hackney has 90 bookies---three times the national average. Will the Prime Minister listen to the debate that took place yesterday and take action this
Friday and instruct his Ministers to support the private Member's Bill that will be before the House and will give local authorities more planning powers over bookies?
The Prime Minister : I will certainly look at the debate the hon. Lady mentions and the ideas expressed in it. We are all for localism and giving local authorities greater powers in these sorts of regards. I will look at the suggestion she
Sometimes you have to feel sorry for the police. Beyond already dealing with a raft of ill-considered laws, politicians also want them to act against insulting behaviour. Section five of the Public Order Act is so broad that almost any
protester on any subject can be arrested and fined for harassment, causing alarm or distress .
It's not merely theoretical; many ludicrous cases have been prosecuted. The police arrested a student who held up a sign stating Scientology was a cult -- surely a matter of opinion? Kyle Little, a 16-year-old from Newcastle, was fined
£ 50 with £ 150 costs for saying woof to a labrador dog in front of police officers. Eventually the magistrates' decision was overturned by a crown court. The very arbitrary nature of deciding
what is insulting gives the police a power they can misuse. After a night out with friends, Sam Brown asked a police officer: Excuse me, do you realise your horse is gay? Police took Brown to court after he refused to pay an
£ 80 fine. The CPS eventually dropped the case.
Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986 is a menace to free speech and the right to protest. It has been repeatedly abused by over-zealous police and prosecutors, to variously arrest gay rights campaigners, Christian street preachers, critics of
Scientology and even students making jokes.
It is time section 5 was repealed, to allow freedom of expression without the threat of arrest. The opportunity for reform exists. The current Protection of Freedoms Bill could easily be amended.
Some MPs and Lords want to amend it. Alas, the Con-Dem government is hesitating, despite its professed commitment to restore many of civil liberties that were whittled away during the Blair-Brown era.
The Government has toned down its support for internet blocking and moved to distance itself from a leading anti-porn campaigner.
Last year, the Government threw its weight behind the idea of ISPs blocking all porn by default unless adults specifically requested a full service.
However the ISPs didn't find this idea practical. They rolled out the compromise idea of providing blocking software to individual subscribers so that they could be tailored as required. ISP's would also ensure that these facilities would be made
crystal clear to new subscribers.
Now it appears the Government is distancing itself from the original idea of blocking porn by default at the ISP level. Foreign Secretary William Hague explained in response to an open letter from rights groups:
We believe that parents should be provided with wide tools to enable them to voluntarily block harmful and inappropriate content.
It is important to distinguish between Government encouraging people to make more use of existing protections as a matter of choice, and the Government deciding what people can and cannot do online.
Our plans do not prevent access to legal material, but seek to make it much clearer that protections exist, and to encourage their use.
The Home Secretary also distanced the Government from MP Claire Perry, who has been campaigning for a block on all porn, a stance that has raised concerns among internet freedom groups. Hague said:
The position of Claire Perry regarding the default filtering of adult content is not the position of this Government.