NORTHERN Ireland has some of the most thin-skinned figures in public life in the UK.
It is not unusual for newspapers to experience threats to sue for alleged defamation on grounds that would be laughed out of court in London, despite the UK reputation as a soft touch for libel litigants.
Northern Ireland, in other words, is an even softer touch than Great Britain.
In one extraordinary incident in 2007, a negative restaurant review in the Irish News led to that publication being found guilty of libel.
The verdict, which was mocked by critics such as the late Michael Winner, was later overturned by a Northern Ireland appeal court.
It is likely that if a similar case ever came before Britain’s Supreme Court, the nation’s highest judges would enshrine the principle that negative reviews are fair comment or honest opinion, but this is not certain without further legislation.
The top QC Lord Lester tells today’s News Letter that the disturbing Irish News review episode helped persuade him of the need for a UK defamation bill.
It would protect the right to sue of anyone whose reputation has been seriously damaged, but it would ensure a fairer balance with free speech by reducing the scope of bullying or vexatious litigants to use the UK’s Victorian libel laws to rack up expensive costs with threats that even wealthy media outlets are frightened to contest.
Stormont could both show that Northern Ireland is not going to remain a soft touch on such matters and also remove any suspicion that its politicians are protecting their right to sue over minor insults by extending such legislation to the Province.