At last, key safeguards to protect free speech from libel bullying moves a step closer in Northern Ireland

News Letter editorial of Thursday May 20 2021:

Thursday, 20th May 2021, 6:30 am
News Letter editorial

It is almost a decade since libel laws were overhauled in Great Britain.

It was an essential reform in favour of free speech, making it less likely that wealthy litigants would chose the United Kingdom as the forum in which to sue publications or the media or individuals which criticised them.

The huge cost of defending defamation actions had a chilling effect on free speech, and meant that public interest journalism and scientific writing was made more difficult.

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There is always a balance between free speech and the right of the individual and organisations to defend their reputation. Almost no-one would say that people should be free to issue lies and smears about other people or groups.

However, the Defamation Act of 2013 made it harder for people to bring vexatious libel cases in GB. It raised the threshold so that only someone who had suffered serious harm to their reputation could bring a case. Yet these essential reforms, to stop libel bullies, quite a few of whom are criminals, were not extended to Northern Ireland.

Lord Lester, the libel reformer, wondered if the failure to extend the law was so politicians in NI could sue newspapers easily. Certainly, readers of the media — which performs such a crucial role in society — might be surprised to learn the extent to which some Northern Ireland public figures are thin skinned, and some of the threats that have been issued to outlets over the decades in the hope of getting money.

Mike Nesbitt MLA is to be congratulated for his efforts, stretching back years, to get this libel protection extended for Northern Ireland. It is excellent news that the Northern Ireland Office is supporting those aspects of his reform that fall outside the jurisdiction of Stormont.

The DUP has in the past opposed libel reform. We hope that the fact that since the start of the Troubles some paramilitaries have been amongst the worst libel bullies, when critics try to call them the terrorists they were, will help the party to see the value of this reform.

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Alistair Bushe