Failure to show Scientology film in NI ‘clear indication’ of libel reform need

Still from trailer for Scientology film Going Clear
Still from trailer for Scientology film Going Clear

The lack of cinemas broadcasting a new film about Scientology is “the first clear indication” of how the Northern Irish public are being left out by the failure to reform libel law, it has been claimed.

A documentary called Going Clear is currently showing in 15 locations across the UK, with more locations are due to start screening it from Friday onwards, according to its website.

The film is billed as offering “shocking revelations by former insiders” in the Church of Scientology, a US-based organisation regarded by some as a cult (something which Scientologists deny).

However, none of the screening locations for the film – either current ones or upcoming ones – are in Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland’s law on libel was left unaffected by the 2013 Defamation Act, passed by the Westminster Parliament.

The Act provides a clear defence for journalists against claims of libel, if they can show that something they have written or broadcast was in the public interest, and that they believed publishing it was conducive to the public good.

However, the Act required ratification in Northern Ireland before it could come into effect in the Province, and the DUP had prevented this from happening.

The media firm Sky had reportedly shelved its plans to show the film across the UK earlier this year, amid claims that the unreformed law in Northern Ireland may be used to take legal action the broadcaster over the documentary’s content.

Asked about the fact nowhere is Northern Ireland is slated to screen the film, Mike Harris, a spokesman for the Libel Reform Campaign which has favoured a change in the law, told the News Letter yesterday: “I think there have been numerous cases where freedom of expression has been chilled in Northern Ireland due to the lack of reform of the law.

“There’s been a number of cases that have come forward that show that the regional media in Northern Ireland have been chilled due to the fact that the law hasn’t been reformed.

“This is the first clear indication that the public in Northern Ireland are not getting access to the same films, the same culture, the same kind of journalism potentially that they would be getting if the law had been reformed.”

There had previously been a public interest-style defence against claims of libel known as the Reynolds Defence.

This had been established through the courts, rather than by an Act of Parliament.

The 2013 Act now supercedes the Reynolds Defence, and Mr Harris said that it offers a stronger chance of defending public interest journalism against those who want to pursue reporters and broadcasters through the courts.

DUP MLA Peter Weir had previously said that pressure from the media to see the law reformed was “self-serving and a way to avoid paying damages when they publish material which is untrue”.

Peter Robinson had been asked by the News Letter about the DUP’s blocking of Northern Irish libel reform earlier this year, in the wake of the news that Sky had shelved its plans to broadcast the Scientology film.

He had been unapologetic, and said “that is what devolution is about – you do your own pieces of legislation”.

In a statement to the Observer in April, the Church of Scientology had said that it “will be entitled to seek the protection of both UK and Irish libel laws in the event that any false or defamatory content in this film [Going Clear] is broadcast within these jurisdictions.”

In a letter to the Hollywood Reporter, published in March, the Church of Scientology had branded the documentary a “bigoted propaganda piece”, and said that it contained “false, embellished and hyperbolic tales to create sensationalistic hatred toward the Church with a portrait none of its parishioners, staff or clergy recognize”.

Mr Harris added that his organisation is currently awaiting the outcome of a consultation into changing the law, which was started by the Law Commission and ended in March.

Although the full results have not been officially published yet, a petition of 747 names calling for the adoption of the 2013 Act in the Province had been submitted by the Libel Reform Campaign.

He said that the scale of the response in the Province was “indicative of a real appetite in Northern Ireland for the law to be reformed”.

But he added he is concerned that the publication of the consultation results “may be being pushed into the long grass”.