Media chief: National papers may quit Ulster

A shop news stand
A shop news stand

British newspapers may stop circulating in Northern Ireland if the DUP’s veto of a free speech law is not overturned, a senior national media figure has told the House of Lords.

Lord Black, executive director of Telegraph Media Group which publishes the Daily Telegraph, warned that Finance Minister Sammy Wilson’s decision could lead to Northern Ireland becoming an international “pariah” for media companies looking to invest.

Speaking in the Lords on Thursday night during a debate on Mr Wilson’s veto of Westminster’s Defamation Act, Lord Black said: “If Northern Ireland clings to the existing law, editors will have to either edit each edition for Northern Ireland separately, in the process sanitising the news and subjecting copy to different legal scrutiny –something I think unlikely to happen – or withdraw their papers from sale, with the profound consequences of that for media plurality.

“The UK’s publishers will have to confront that issue if there is no change of heart at Stormont.”

He added: “The Executive’s decision to cling to legislation from a world which has disappeared makes King Canute look perfectly reasonable.”

Lord Lexden, the Conservative peer who as Alistair Cooke has authored numerous books on the history of the Tory Party, said: “When it is implemented, the Defamation Act 2013 will transform an area of law that has been much criticised over many years.

“It will introduce major improvements and confer great benefits on the people of England and Wales. The law of defamation in Northern Ireland has never been detached from that in England and Wales.

“In the 1950s, Westminster and the Stormont Parliament introduced the same changes to it. Now, however, for the first time in our history, Northern Ireland is to be severed from England and Wales in this wide area of law.

“For an ardent unionist like me it is a highly disagreeable prospect, although I could be persuaded to accept it if compelling reasons existed to justify Ulster’s severance. I have not yet heard or read them.”

Lord Lexden, who has a long association with Northern Ireland, quoted Belfast lawyer Paul McDonnell, who told him that by stopping the Defamation Bill, Stormont was allowing investigations in the public interest to be stifled through “censorship by the back door”.

Mr McDonnell warned that Northern Ireland could become a “libel-friendly, free speech limiting UK outpost”.

Viscount Colville cited the experience of both the News Letter and the Belfast Telegraph as he argued against Stormont’s decision.

He said: “As a journalist, I can tell your Lordships that it is not so much what happens in the courts but the prospect of what might happen which has such a chilling effect on free speech and encourages the imposition of self-censorship.”

And he added: “After talking to diverse journalists in the Province, it seems to me that many of the Province’s politicians are notoriously thin-skinned about criticism.

“Journalists and writers complain of their easy resort to the threat of defamation and keep [solicitor] Mr Paul Tweed, whom the noble Lord, Lord Lester mentioned, busy issuing threats of defamations.”