In Britain, Curbing Lawsuits Over Libel

By New York Times | by Eric Pfanner
Sunday, March 20th, 2011 @ 9:43PM

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Some tourists head to London to visit Big Ben or the Tate museum. For wealthy individuals or celebrities who feel that they can sue the news media under Britain’s libel laws, the Royal Courts of Justice have long been a popular stop.

The issue rose to international prominence after a Saudi businessman, Khalid bin Mahfouz, successfully sued an American author, Rachel Ehrenfeld, in London over a book that had been published in the United States in 2003 and sold only 23 copies in Britain.

Last year, President Obama signed into law a measure blocking enforcement of British libel judgments in United States courts if they conflicted with American free-speech protections.

British publishers, too, have chafed at libel laws that they see as favorable to claimants, saying wealthy subjects of news coverage, including big companies, use the threat of lawsuits to bully news organizations into squelching provocative articles. They mounted a well-organized campaign and, unusually, convinced all three of Britain’s main political parties that something needed to be done.

Last week, the government introduced legislation to overhaul the libel laws, including provisions aimed at curtailing so-called libel tourism, cracking down on trivial claims and giving news organizations greater protection for publishing articles deemed to be truthful or in the public interest.

“The right to speak freely and debate issues without fear of censure is a vital cornerstone of a democratic society,” said Kenneth Clarke, the justice secretary.

So, will libel claimants soon have to look elsewhere? Perhaps. But free speech groups that led the libel reform campaign say the proposed changes do not go far enough.

“The government’s draft defamation bill is a big step forward toward ending the practice of libel tourism, which has led our courts to silence free speech around the world,” said John Kampfner, chief executive of Index on Censorship. “But without action to reduce the cost of a libel trial, reform will protect the free speech of some, but costs will silence others.”

The high cost of defending against a libel suit in Britain — or of bringing one, for that matter — is not addressed in the proposed legislation. Rather than spending tens or hundreds of thousands of pounds on a legal defense, many journalists or publishers will continue to settle cases even when they know that they were publishing the truth, critics say. As before, the burden of proof in such situations will remain with the defendant — the reverse of the situation in the United States, where media freedom has greater constitutional protection.

There may also be less than meets the eye in the move to restrict libel tourism, as British courts already seemed to be changing their thinking on the subject. In February, for example, a judge dismissed a defamation claim by a Ukrainian billionaire who had sued a Ukrainian newspaper, The Kyiv Post, in London.

Dominic Crossley, a lawyer at Collyer Bristow Solicitors in London who represents both libel claimants and defendants, said he was skeptical that much would change, calling the bill a “sop to the media.”

Among Mr. Crossley’s clients is Max Mosley, former president of the governing body of Formula One auto racing, who successfully sued a British tabloid, News of the World, after it reported on Mr. Mosley’s dalliance with prostitutes. Mr. Mosley has gone to the European Court of Human Rights, seeking stronger privacy protection for the subjects of tabloid articles.

“Every week brings a new revelation of criminal behavior by tabloid journalists in the U.K.,” Mr. Crossley said. “So it seems to me that the reform of libel is slightly off message. The behavior of tabloid journalists is the real issue that needs to be dealt with.

Categories: ACD in the Media

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