Are UK Libel Laws Too Strong?

Source: thebureauinvestigates.com

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?

Sources: Bureau of Investigative Journalism, The PA Report 1, The PA Report 2, New York Times

2 comments

  1. While I respect the U.K.’s strong and determinate value of integrity, I believe the consequences are just too detrimental to the public and to journalism. It seems apparent that the system is too vulnerable, and perhaps has been partly shaped by the power of the rich who want to keep stories quiet. The fact that one does not have to prove that a libelous comment has harmed one’s reputation, only that it exists, is too protective of defendants. The press cannot perform its function if such laws hinder it. Most journalists go into journalism to expose the truth, harmful or not, not to praise each and every person they write about. Additionally, with the majority of news being disseminated via the Internet, the fact that every publication of a libelous statement is equal to a new offense is a huge barrier to journalists. A writer could be sued a crippling amount of times for truthful writing. It is definitely helpful to American journalists to have the Speech Act protecting them, but as long as the structure of these U.K. laws remains in effect, proper exposure in the U.K. will be severely limited.

  2. I think that there should be balance between the United States’ overly liberal libel laws, and the United Kingdom’s overly protective libel laws. I think there is no harm in the UK requiring proof of whatever it is you are saying about another, but the fact that this has turned into truth seekers not doing the public justice takes the UK laws too far. If you are going to call someone a pedophile and ruin their name and livelihood, you should have to submit proof; however, if you have that proof you should not be scared to come forward. I think this is the UK’s flaw and it needs to be fixed. On the other side, the United States I think is too relaxed when it comes to defamation, which has allowed journalism to turn into a gossip game essentially, where true journalistic endeavors are the exception. I believe this has become the United States’ flaw, and what gets published needs to be looked at and source checked more carefully. When publishers are afraid of publishing a true story for fear of a lawsuit, something needs to change, and the UK should make sure that the truth seekers are entitled to do their work.

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