National newspapers ‘jumpy’ about Stormont’s libel veto

Lord Bew
Lord Bew

Stormont’s decision to exclude Northern Ireland from a law strengthening the protection of free speech has made some national publications “jumpy” about circulating in the province, an Ulster peer has said.

On Thursday the Queen signed the Defamation Bill into law as the Defamation Act 2013, a move which strengthens free speech protections.

However, as revealed by the News Letter last month, the law will not extend to Northern Ireland because of a veto by Stormont, seemingly from Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness’s department.

The law, which gives increased protection for newspapers, publishers or members of the public who are threatened with libel proceedings, has been welcomed by free speech groups, newspapers and scientists who have been sued by corporations.

Among the new law’s measures is a public interest defence of responsible journalism, qualified privilege for academic and scientific journals and an attempt to end London’s reputation as the libel capital of the world.

Earlier this week the eminent Belfast historian Lord Bew warned the House of Lords that the Executive’s decision would lead to “innumerous anomalies” for the circulation of British publications in Northern Ireland and was “almost a self-mutilating act”.

There are fears that, faced with a greater likelihood of being sued if they circulate in Northern Ireland, some national publications will withdraw from the Province.

The Crossbench peer told the News Letter tonight: “There are senior people in the national media who are jumpy about what this might mean [for them in Northern Ireland].”

Speaking in the House of Lords, Lord Bew urged Stormont to change its mind.

He told peers: “The point about this bill is that it is not just about enhancing press freedom but about public debate more generally, including academic freedom.

“I find it very disturbing that the region of the United Kingdom from which I come is opting for a more restrictive type of public debate and deciding not to engage in the wider freedoms that will now be available for public expression in the United Kingdom more generally.

“I find that is almost a self-mutilating act

“The only thing I can say to the noble Lord, Lord Lester, is that I hope over time-but not too much time-the Northern Ireland Assembly will rethink its position.”