National newspapers will either stop circulating in Northern Ireland or be edited separately to “sanitise” key stories if the Province’s libel laws are not reformed, a top media executive has warned.
Lord Black of Brentwood – who travelled to Belfast yesterday to speak in support of UUP leader Mike Nesbitt’s “vital” attempt to reverse the DUP’s veto of libel reform – said that jobs, personal freedoms and the quality of government at Stormont will also suffer.
The executive director of the Daily Telegraph’s publisher said that he had “no doubt” some media companies would decide “it is now too dangerous to operate in a jurisdiction which stifles free speech” and move elsewhere.
And he cautioned that anyone in Northern Ireland posting information on the internet would potentially be open to “the intense dangers of costly libel actions”.
Lord Black made the comments at the launch of Mr Nesbitt’s consultation on a Private Member’s Bill to reform the Province’s libel laws in favour of free speech. In April, the News Letter revealed that last year the DUP secretly vetoed the extension of Westminster’s Defamation Bill to the Province, something the Executive never discussed.
Yesterday Lord Black was the main speaker at Mr Nesbitt’s personal attempt to undo what he said was the damage done by the DUP decision.
The event was also addressed by English PEN, which represents authors, many of whom wrote to Peter Robinson on the issue earlier this week. A member of Sense About Science spoke of the libel threat to doctors and academics.
Speaking to the News Letter after the event, Lord Black said: “The DUP would need to look at it from this perspective: all newspaper companies, whether they’re big national publishers or local publishers, are facing serious commercial pressure.
“I think they need to ask themselves this question: If, suddenly, after the Defamation Act is implemented in the UK later this year, we are faced with a position where in Northern Ireland we would be having to edit a publication which has to deal with [a libel regime], that’s going to be very costly.
“It will mean significantly different copy. That’s going to have an impact on the number of reporters you need or it will mean having very serious lawyers in to legal every single piece of copy that goes into your newspaper. I would just ask the question: if you are a very hard-pressed publisher, will you be prepared to make that investment? Some may, but I’m betting that some won’t and they will just take the decision that we can’t afford to publish here.”
He stressed that “national newspapers want to be that – to sell and be involved in Scotland, in Wales, in Northern Ireland and throughout England”, adding that it would be “a matter of huge regret if, because of the intransigence of the Executive here, they were forced to have to withdraw”.
Asked why he thought any group of politicians would block libel reform, Lord Black quoted leading lawyer and libel reform campaigner Lord Lester, who said that the only motivation could be a desire to continue to easily sue newspapers. Lord Black added: “I have heard nothing from anyone which leads me to believe that he’s wrong about that.”
Lord Black said that “for the first time in our history, Northern Ireland is to be severed from England and Wales in a wide area of law in a way that will have profound consequences for the Province...cast adrift in a Ruritanian legislative backwater...clinging to widely-condemned laws which undermine free speech”.