Thursday, 10 March 2011

What do we want? Libel reform! When do we want it? Now! (or, as soon as the applicable Parliamentary procedures have been observed...)

Later today, scientists, authors, comedians and journalists will gather in Parliament to lend their support to the Libel Reform Coalition's blueprint for the protection of free speech, setting out their priorities for libel laws that no longer stifle debate. I set out below a summary of how we've reached this stage.

The campaign to reform our unjust and illiberal libel laws has achieved a great deal to date; in just under two years, we've gone from raising awareness of cases such as Simon Singh's, which demonstrate all to clearly the need to defend fair comment, to seeing manifesto commitments on libel reform from all three major political parties at the last election.

As the evidence builds that our libel laws really do threaten legitimate public discourse on matters of public interest, the momentum behind the campaign has increased significantly in recent months, with a number of significant developments - not least of which was the publication of Lord Lester's draft Defamation Bill. The Coalition Government responded to Lord Lester's Bill by committing to publishing its draft legislation to be put before Parliament - a significant achievement, showing that Lord McNally and others in government truly are committed to reforming our libel laws for the better.

We understand that after a significant consultation the Government is due to publish its legislation at some point next week - in anticipation of that publication, the Libel Reform Coalition will later today release a blueprint for libel reform, setting out our priorities for reform. At the launch of this blueprint, entitled What should a defamation bill contain?, supporters of the Campaign will tell MPs that "public interest should be at the heart of the new defamation bill," and that, in the words of Sense about Science Director Tracey Brown, "The current laws work best for bullies. The new law must work best for the citizen."

The blueprint is designed to set out what the Libel Reform Coalition wishes to see in the Government's legislation; as Dr. Evan Harris from the Campaign said,
"From writers to scientists and from journalists to editors, those who love free speech want next week's Government's draft defamation bill to match the contents of our blue-print and if fails to do so will be urging MPs and peers to amend it".
The Parliamentary launch of the blueprint will be followed by an opportunity for supporters to put their concerns to MPs.

Commenting on the blueprint's release, Director of English PEN said, "PEN's members have been calling for reform for more than 70 years. It's time to finish the job that EM Forster began in 1938."

As I'm lucky enough to be attending the launch, I'll update this post with photos and news later.

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