I’m obliged to Jeff Dudgeon for drawing attention to the latest failure by the Executive. It has come to light that the Stormont powers that be failed to agree on bringing Northern Ireland into line with the English Defamation Bill and so bring much needed reform to the libel laws – if the Bill isn’t messed up by confusing the issues with the quite distinct ones of press regulation and the Leveson agenda.
No reason was given apparently. The Bill’s main plank is to create a public interest defence against libel.
Among others, the Bill would make the following major changes:
- Create a test of “serious harm” for statements to be considered defamatory.
- Abolish the common law defences of fair comment, justification and Reynolds privilege, and place them on a statutory footing.
- Create a new statutory privilege for peer-reviewed scientific and academic publications and provide greater protection to online entities.
- Amend the existing law of qualified privilege to include reports of scientific conferences and press conferences.
The Scottish government, at least as proud as ours and with rather more reason and even though it’s seeking independence, saw no threat to its dignity by allowing the Bill to apply to Scotland. Why on earth not us too?
This leaves Northern Ireland isolated in the UK.
A case of everybody out of step except our wee Sammy?
So was it opposition to press freedom, over sensitivity about local prerogatives and another example of refusing to going along with Westminster, exagerrated respect for the skills of Belfast libel lawyer Paul Tweed, plain failure to understand and not caring anyway, or what? Should we not be told?
However, it has now emerged at Parliament that the Stormont Executive has refused permission for the law to extend to Northern Ireland. When asked why it had made that decision, Stormont’s Department of Finance and Personnel (DFP) said that it had “considered” extending one clause in the new Bill to Northern Ireland but the Executive had been unable to come to a decision.
The issue came to light after Ulster peer Lord Rana asked the Government about the issue in the House of Lords and questioned the implications of two separate libel regimes for publications which circulate throughout the United Kingdom.
Responding for the Government in a written answer on 25 Februaury, Lord Newby said that as the law on defamation was devolved, the Government had consulted the Stormont Executive about the possibility of the Assembly passing a legislative consent motion – which allows Westminster to legislate on an issue on behalf of Stormont – but “in the event, no such extension was sought”.
Leading Belfast lawyer Brian Garrett said that he was troubled by the possibility of two substantively different libel laws throughout the United Kingdom. The former part-time judge told the News Letter: “I think that Northern Ireland either comes into line with a modern law or it will be very unfortunate. It would be unhelpful to scholarship, free and open journalism and all sorts of things of that kind.
“For that reason, I think that it is a high priority that this should be looked at and we should get on with it.
The former chairman of the Northern Ireland Labour Party said that there had been “such a poor legislative programme” at Stormont but it seemed that “it hasn’t been given any thought” by the Executive. He added: “That worries me.”
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London