In the United States, we do not take Freedom of the Press lightly. Although we do have libel laws, the press is free to report damaging information so long as they are telling the truth. However, the burden on a defendant is much higher in the United Kingdom. Britain’s libel laws are so strict that newspapers are afraid to print stories that could be construed as libelous for fear of a long and costly legal battle. If they lose, they would have to pay the other party’s attorney’s fees. In fact, litigation is so expensive that the mere threat of a libel suit causes publishers to edit or not publish articles, even if the potentially damaging content is truthful.
The UK’s libel laws date back to times when a man’s word was his bond. If you dared to challenge his honor, you must provide proof. Thus, in libel cases, the burden is on the defendant. While providing proof before defaming ones character is reasonable, actual or potential injuries do not need to be shown. Such as with trespassing, the mere act of publishing a libelous statement is all that is required to be found libelous, whether or not that statement had any harmful consequences that harmed the other party. Moreover, offended plaintiffs can sue individual journalists as well as publications.
Online journals and blogs present a new problem. According to an archaic 19th century rule, every repeated publication of a libelous statement would be a new offense. This is particularly troubling when quotes and articles are quoted, re-posted, re-tweeted, or cited to. As such, the fear of being sued for libel in the UK has caused publishers to monitor the contents of articles very closely. Recently, Eurogamer, a website that reports on video games, removed a statement suggesting that a connection between gaming journalist Lauren Wainwright and video game publisher Square Enix might imply a bias to consumers in how she reviews games. Wainwright then proceeded to threaten Eurogamer with legal action if they did not remove the statement. Although the statement made no accusations, Eurogamer’s legal team advised them to acquiesce, which they did, causing the author to quit the website.
In a worst-case scenario, these libel laws can harm the public good by giving truth-seekers an incentive to stay quiet, even when people are being harmed. Jimmy Savile was an incredibly famous host and personality on the BBC in England. Using his strong influence in the country, he was able to suppress knowledge of his sexual abuse of children. Over the years, journalists have done independent studies to confirm Savile’s horrible behavior, but due to libel laws, none would publish their findings.
In 2010, the United States passed the Speech Act, which protects the American press from the UK’s libel laws by making foreign judgments that do not comply with the US’s own libel laws unenforceable. What should England do? How can you justify a system where publishers are afraid to print the truth for fear of a libel suit?