Nesbitt has become the voice of much-needed libel reform

Morning View
Morning View

The Ulster Unionist Party has emphatically restated its commitment to libel law reform.

In the party’s Assembly election manifesto, the UUP leader Mike Nesbitt pledged to “continue to campaign for more open, transparent government, including reform of the laws of defamation”.

Mr Nesbitt has emerged as the key figure at Stormont who is driving this much-needed change.

Northern Ireland has some public figures with among the thinnest skins in the UK who threaten libel actions that would be laughed out of court in London even under the old libel laws. They would get nowhere near court in Great Britain now antiquated libel laws have been overhauled there.

But the DUP vetoed Northern Ireland being part of reform. Thus media outlets, often with limited budgets, fear the risk of ruinous court costs over claims that should be dismissed.

This is state of affairs needs to end. It is all the more unfair in the social media age, in which groups of individuals often report things en masse that media outlets cannot.

No-one disputes that there must be redress for libels which result in serious harm, as is the threshold under the reformed Westminster law that has not been introduced in NI.

Mr Nesbitt, who brought forward a private member’s bill for reform that failed to progress into law, says: “The right to freedom of speech is fundamental to our constitution.”

We are a newspaper that knows about that, having been responsibly but extensively covering events since 1737. We have navigated subjects that made the authorities nervous, from the 1798 United Irishmen rebellion (in which the grandson of the News Letter founder Francis Joy’s son was hanged) through the Napoleonic wars, world wars and the Troubles.

A free press is essential to a democracy. Latterly, the balance in the UK has swung so far in favour of claimants that it had a chilling effect on that freedom. GB redressed things. Mr Nesbitt is to be commended for trying to ensure the same here.