Peer: Stormont has not explained why it refuses to reform libel law to protect free speech and journalism

In 2013, landmark legislation, the Defamation Act, struck a new and much fairer balance between the rights of claimants and defendants in libel cases.

Thursday, 14th January 2021, 8:10 pm
Updated Thursday, 14th January 2021, 8:28 pm
The UK government points out that reforming the defamation laws is not a matter for Westminster, but rather one for Stormont - which has done nothing, seven years after protections for free speech and journalism were boosted in 2013

The act enshrines effective protection for free speech and investigative journalism, while providing proper remedies for those who are genuinely wronged.

The legislation was designed to cover England, Wales and Northern Ireland, which historically have always shared the same libel laws. In Northern Ireland, however, the devolved executive has refused to introduce the new law.

The effect on the press has been severe. Newspapers in Northern Ireland face the prospect of crippling damages.

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The Conservative peer Lord Lexden this week in the House of Lords returned to his long-standing call for libel reform to be extended to Northern Ireland

Investigative journalism suffers as newspapers drop important articles about prominent politicians and wealthy figures for fear of being put out of business.

I have been among those at Westminster and in Northern Ireland who have consistently pressed for the extension of the Defamation Act 2013 to the Province. The government argues that it is a matter for the devolved executive.

I returned to this important issue on Monday.

Speaking in the Lords, I said: “During a debate on this subject which I initiated in 2013, I asked a question sent to me by a leading Belfast solicitor. More than seven years on, I will ask the question again. Why should the citizens and journalists of Northern Ireland not be afforded the same protection as those in the rest of the United Kingdom, whether they are expressing opinions online or holding government to account?”

I went on to deplore the executive’s failure to “extend the benefits of this landmark human rights legislation to our fellow countrymen and countrywomen in Northern Ireland, who have been given no explanation by the executive”.

In Northern Ireland, there is now a growing campaign to secure reform.

Belfast’s leading paper, the News Letter, reported on January 11 that “thousands have signed up the campaign which is supported by a wide group of journalists”.

Everyone everywhere should support it.

• Alistair Lexden (formerly Cooke) taught history at Queen’s University, Belfast and was chairman of the Northern Ireland Historical Association before becoming political adviser to Airey Neave, 1977-79. He was chairman of the Friends of the Union, founded by Ian Gow, 1995-2003.

His publications include Ulster: The Origins of the Problem (1988) and Ulster: The Unionist Options (1990). He often speaks on Northern Ireland in the Lords

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