Election Diary: Commit to reform of libel laws, candidates urged

The GB Defamation Act 2013
The GB Defamation Act 2013

The campaign to reform Northern Ireland’s libel laws to strengthen free speech is pressing parties to give a commitment to change the law.

Three years ago, the News Letter revealed that the DUP had secretly vetoed Northern Ireland being part of Westminster’s UK-wide reforms in 2012.

UUP leader Mike Nesbitt proposed a private member’s bill at Stormont to address the issue, but that was derailed when the DUP finance department asked for a consultation which has delayed any action to address the discrepancy in the law.

Former DUP leader Peter Robinson and some libel lawyers have dismissed warnings that the law needs changed. Mr Robinson said claims the old laws stifled freedom of speech were “absurd”.

In an open letter to the Stormont parties, the Northern Ireland Libel Reform Campaign is now asking candidates and Northern Ireland’s main political parties to commit to supporting reform of libel law in order to better protect free speech.

The campaign, which includes writers, academics and scientists, highlighted the impact of the old law, which last year saw Sky Atlantic temporarily pull broadcast of Going Clear, a significant Hollywood film about Scientology, out of fears it could be liable for damages at the High Court in Belfast.

Sile Lane, the campaign director of Sense About Science said that there was public support for “doctors to be able to discuss evidence for treatments, consumer magazines to be able to review products and journalists to investigate local issues without fear of being dragged into court if someone doesn’t like what they say”.

The UUP and Alliance manifestos support reform of the law.

A DUP spokesman said: “It should be noted that different regions of the United Kingdom have not all adopted the same position in terms of libel reform.

“An independent study is currently being completed assessing whether change in this area is required. We want to see that independent legal view before deciding to take forward any particular approach.”

SF revives the SDP

West Tyrone Sinn Fein candidate Barry McElduff has tweeted a mock ballot paper which has been filled in as Sinn Fein would like – with votes 1, 2, 3 and 4 against Sinn Fein candidates.

However, Sinn Fein has failed to get the name of its main rival correct, describing Daniel McCrossan as a candidate for the ‘Social Democratic Party (SDLP)’.

All-unionist debate

The reality of Northern Ireland elections is that most voters will only consider switching their vote between candidates who are either unionist or nationalist.

Londonderry Bands Forum has taken that to its logical conclusion, by only inviting the three Foyle unionist candidates to a debate at St Columb’s Park House on April 27 at 7pm.

Upcoming hustings events

lGP and Primary Care Hustings: Clayton Hotel (Ormeau Avenue, Belfast). April 21, 7pm. Aimed at current and prospective medical professionals. (Organised by the Royal College of GPs).

lNorth Down: First Holywood Presbyterian Church, April 21, 7.30pm. (Evangelical Alliance/CARE).

lEast Antrim: Town Hall, Larne, April 21, 7.30pm (Organised by trade union Unite, focused on employment, chaired by Jamie Delargy).

lNorth Belfast: Girdwood Community Hub, April 21, 7pm. (Organised by local clergy, chaired by William Crawley)

lEnvironmental Hustings: Lough Neagh Discovery Centre, Oxford Island, April 22, 10am. (NI Environment Link).

lLagan Valley: Vineyard Church (Altona Business Park), April 26, 7.30pm. (EA/CARE).

lNorth Antrim: The Braid, April 27, Ballymena, 7.30pm (Organised by trade union Unite, focused on employment).

lSouth Belfast: Agape Centre (238 Lisburn Road), April 27, 7.30pm. (Organised by ‘Challenges’, chaired by William Crawley).

lNorth Down: Kings Church Bangor (Seacliff Road), April 28, 7pm.