Mike Nesbitt has said that the UUP will continue to press for Northern Ireland’s much-criticised libel laws to be reformed in line with those of the rest of the UK.
After the DUP secretly vetoed Northern Ireland being part of Westminster’s UK-wide reforms in 2012, Mr Nesbitt brought forward 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”.
But, writing in the UUP manifesto, Mr Nesbitt said: “I will continue to campaign for more open, transparent government, including reform of the laws of defamation. “The latter is important, for a number of reasons: We have no second, reviewing chamber of Stormont, like the Lords at Westminster; there is currently no Official Opposition in the Assembly; the media are hampered in their scrutiny role by antiquated libel laws that give insufficient protections to freedom of speech.”
He went on: “Our current laws of defamation pre-date the internet, an invention that allows all of us to comment in an immediate and largely unmoderated manner to a potentially worldwide audience. “The right to freedom of speech is fundamental to our constitution.”
He warned that without reform of the libel laws “media outlets will either have to consider publishing editions of their newspapers, programmes and websites that are sanitised to meet Northern Ireland’s specific defamation laws, or not publish in NI at all”, and that universities “will struggle to attract the best researchers as scientists and academics will be put off by the fact that Northern Ireland does not offer the same protection for peer-reviewed analysis” under the Westminster law.