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The public and libel reform – debate tonight

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This post was first published on the Media Standards Trust website on Tuesday 11th January

Tonight we have partnered with INFORRM to organise a debate, hosted by Gray’s Inn, about the implications of libel reform for the public.

‘Libel reform: in the public’s interest?’ approaches the question of reform rather differently than most. Rather than pit publisher vs published against, or claimant vs defendant, this is more about the little guy vs the big guy. The scientist vs the libel threat from Big Corp (e.g. Peter Wilmshurst vs NMT). The falsely accused member of the public vs the barons of mainstream media (such as Robert Murat, or Tom Stephens).

As such the questions the debate will be asking include things like:

  • If libel reform goes through as proposed, will that spell the end of Conditional Fee Agreements (No Win No Fee) and, as a consequence, significantly reduce access to justice for people like Robert Murat and Christopher Jefferies (both of whom had access to CFAs)? In which case, will there be any way to seek fair redress in the courts if you’re not rich?
  • Will a reformed libel law actually help to protect bloggers, scientists and NGOs from the threat of expensive libel suits?
  • Should reform aim to provide affordable remedies to members of the public who have been damaged by the publication of false statements (something which the current proposals do not address)?
  • Will reform actually lead to faster and fairer resolution of libel claims?
  • If there is much less chance of being sued, will this lead to more defamatory reporting in the popular press?
  • Could a reformed libel law distinguish between the defamatory claims against a blogger with half-a-dozen readers and the claims against a newspaper with two million readers (and should it)? Perhaps non-commercial publishers (e.g. bloggers & NGOs) should be exempt from libel or have special defences?

The case of Tamil hunger striker, Parameswaran Subramanyam, illuminates some of the questions this debate is trying to address.

Following Parameswaran’s 23 day hunger strike in Parliament Square in 2009, two national newspapers – the Daily Mail and The Sun – alleged that he had broken his hunger strike to eat burgers. This was not true. The papers said they had CCTV evidence to prove it. They did not.

But as a result of the allegations Parameswaran was cut off by the Tamil community and shunned by his family. He considered suicide.

Parameswaran could not afford to go to court to clear his name, but he was able to get legal help using a Conditional Fee Agreement.

In June 2010 Parameswaran won his libel case against the Mail and The Sun. Both papers admitted that the allegations were false, apologized, and agreed to pay substantial damages and legal costs.

In statement following the court ruling Parameswaran said:

I am relieved that this matter is now resolved and I can start to rebuild my life again. The past 8 months have been an unbearable strain on my life, to the extent that at times I have even contemplated taking my own life. As a result of the lies that the newspapers published about me, and through no fault of my own, I have lost friends, been shunned by family members and completely ostracised from the Tamil community.

Would Parameswaran been able to fight his case and clear his name under the proposed new libel laws?

Taking part in tonight’s debate are: Sir Christopher Gray (a barrister and former High Court Judge), Kevin Marsh (executive editor of the BBC’s College of Journalism), Evan Harris (former LibDem MP and key campaigner for libel reform), Zoe Margolis (blogger – ‘Girl with a One Track Mind’ – who won a libel action vs Independent on Sunday), Razi Mireskandari (managing partner of Simons Muirhead & Burton). The debate will be chaired by Baroness Helena Kennedy.

It will be held at Gray’s Inn in London from 18.30 to 20.00. The hashtag for the event is #libelpublic.

Written by Martin Moore

January 21st, 2011 at 12:49 pm