It is both disturbing and predictable that the Scientology film is not being distributed in Northern Ireland, due to our dated libel laws.
When Stormont declined to follow the reforms to the defamation laws in Great Britain, two things were predicted by freedom of speech advocates:
First, that Northern Ireland would become a forum for libel litigation, and perhaps even a capital for such actions.
Second, that publishers would where possible avoid distribution in Northern Ireland.
Both prospects are alarming, but the second – as has happened in this case – is arguably worse. It means a further diminution of our Britishness. For example, the Independent newspaper has already stopped distributing its print edition in Northern Ireland. This is for circulation, not libel, reasons. But the existence of outdated laws in an age of falling newspaper circulation makes other such decisions more likely.
It has been said, rightly, that the whole point of devolution is that we can have different laws in some aspects of governance from the rest of the UK. However, a change in a law must be considered in the context of its relationship with other laws, such as UK-wide laws or parallel laws in the other home nations. In this case, it is in the context of a libel reform that was needed in Britain for years, and was introduced with cross-party support at Westminster.
Consequently there has been a sensible reform, which sets the standard that a plaintiff must demonstrate that they have suffered serious harm to be successful in an action.
There is little dispute about maintaining the principle that individuals or businesses must be able to protect their reputation, but the 2013 Defamation Act re-balanced the competing rights to freedom of speech and protection of reputation.
Northern Ireland clearly needs a version of the act, and politicians such as the Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt need support in their bids to bring it about.