Reading about the massive public support for reforming Northern Ireland’s libel laws, many will wonder why an issue over which there is near-unanimous agreement was blocked from even entering the Assembly.
The results of Mike Nesbitt’s consultation on his proposal for a Stormont bill to bring the Province’s defamation laws back into line with the rest of the UK are stark. More than nine in every ten people responding to the consultation supported key aspects of the Westminster Defamation Act being extended to Northern Ireland; in some areas as many as 99 per cent agreed.
Mr Nesbitt showed both personal initiative and commitment to a principle which, although of fundamental importance, is of low priority to some politicians. By contrast, those who claim that only journalists will benefit from reform of this issue — and for obvious reasons, good reporters care deeply about freedom of expression — show a concerning ignorance of present realities.
While newspapers and broadcasters do face legal bullying, major media organisations are used to dealing with such threats and have access to top lawyers. Academics, scientific researchers, or individuals using a website such as Facebook generally do not have such resources. As Dr Peter Wilmshurst — who for four years was sued by a medical firm after he raised concerns about heart devices which led to patients dying — told MLAs last year, individuals being legally intimidated by the libel laws face losing their homes due to the gargantuan costs.
It was the DUP Finance Minister Sammy Wilson who excluded Northern Ireland from the Defamation Act in 2012. Since then, he has been replaced by Simon Hamilton.
Some fear that by referring the issue to the Law Commission, Mr Hamilton is attempting to block Mr Nesbitt’s bill. Given the results of Mr Nesbitt’s consultation, such a course of action would be difficult to explain. As a new minister, Mr Hamilton has a chance here to nail his colours to the mast.
Free speech is too important to be mired in party politicking.