Legislative Scrutiny: Defamation Bill - Human Rights Joint Committee Contents


2  Significant Human Rights issues raised by the Bill

Clause 4—Responsible publication in the public interest

THE NEED FOR A NEW PUBLIC INTEREST DEFENCE

8.  Clause 4, as drafted, represents a codification of the existing Reynolds defence for responsible publication on a matter of public interest. The present formulation of this clause raises two important issues: first, whether the drafting does in fact represent the common law; and second, whether the Defamation Bill should go beyond the current limits of the common law to provide greater protection for publisher-defendants.

9.  We wrote to the Government expressing our concerns with the current drafting. In light of the Government response, we wish to expand further on our concerns and outline our rationale for recommending that Clause 4 of the Bill be improved.

The difficulties with a checklist of factors

10.  A repeated criticism of the current law is that the decision in Reynolds is too restrictive and has been applied by the courts so narrowly as to render it almost impossible for defendants successfully to plead that their statement is protected by qualified privilege.

11.  This analysis of the existing law is consistent with that of the UN Committee on Human Rights, which expressed its criticism of the UK's libel laws in its 2008 report on the implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights:

"The Committee is concerned that the State party's practical application of the law of libel has served to discourage critical media reporting on matters of serious public interest, adversely affecting the ability of scholars and journalists to publish their work, including through the phenomenon known as "libel tourism." The advent of the internet and the international distribution of foreign media also creates the danger that a State party's unduly restrictive libel law will affect freedom of expression world-wide on matters of valid public interest."[2]

12.  JUSTICE has voiced its concerns as to the scope of Reynolds stating "it may be too narrow and that the lower courts may to continue to apply it in a conservative manner."[3] In particular, JUSTICE cites the views of Lord Steyn speaking in May 2011, in support of the argument that there exists a judicial conservatism towards Reynolds:

"Optimism about the practical utility of Reynolds privilege unfortunately proved misplaced. The great majority of Reynolds defences failed at first instance. The decision in Reynolds was criticised by the New Zealand Court of appeal in Lange v Atkinson and Australian Consolidated NZ Limited [2003] 4 LRC 596, a case involving again a suit in defamation by a public figure. It held that the Reynolds decision altered the law of qualified privilege in a way which added to the uncertainty and chilling effect of the existing law of defamation[...] Unfortunately as matters stand, the Reynolds privilege will continue to complicate the task of journalists and editors who wish to explore matters of public interest and it will continue to erode freedom of expression."[4]

13.  In order to avail of the defence under the Bill, as currently formulated in Clause 4, the defendant will need to satisfy both limbs outlined in Clause 4, subsection 1(a) and (b). Paragraph (b) requires that the defendant acted responsibly in publishing the statement complained of. Clause 4(2) then sets out a list of factors the court may take into account when determining if the defendant has indeed acted responsibly on the facts—factors first expounded by Lord Nicholls in Reynolds. The Explanatory Notes explain that the Bill attempts to rectify the subsequent difficulty defendants have had with Reynolds privilege, namely that the listing of such factors is not intended to be a hurdle or a checklist.

14.  Given the fact there has already been a history of these factors being misconstrued (albeit in a common law rather than statutory context), it is our view that the Government should consider redrafting the law on responsible journalism in such a way as to leave no room for doubt.

15.  We do not think that the retention of the Reynolds checklist of factors will bring about the much-needed rebalancing of the law on defamation in favour of the right to freedom of speech in Article 10 ECHR. We think that to retain these factors will only perpetuate the difficulties already manifest in practice. We note that the Government has indicated in its response to our letter that it is currently considering how best to respond to proposals for a new public interest defence. We therefore recommend that the Government take this opportunity to abandon the statutory checklist of factors in favour of clear, unambiguous defence of public interest.

Flood and editorial judgement

16.  We are also concerned that the present drafting of Clause 4 does not, in fact, represent the entirety of the existing common law protection, in particular, the relevance of editorial judgement, as emphasised by the Supreme Court in Flood v Times Newspapers.[5]

17.  The decision in Flood v Times Newspapers concerned the publication of allegations of corruption made against a police officer by The Times in both its online and print editions. The Supreme Court held that the 'meaning' of the story was the police investigation into the allegations, rather than the allegations per se, and that it was difficult to see how The Times could report on the matter without naming the police officer in question. Although the article was damaging to DS Flood's reputation, the court concluded that it was balanced in content and tone, did not assert the truth of the allegations, gave DS Flood the opportunity of commenting, and that the editorial judgement of The Times merited respect. It found that editorial freedom and journalistic judgement were relevant factors, and were entitled to be given weight when considering how much detail should be published.[6]

18.  There is significant doubt that Clause 4, as drafted, adequately reflects the decision of the Supreme Court in Flood. Not only do we take the view that the retention of Reynolds will restrict the defence, but that the decision to omit the relevance of editorial judgement from the Bill will marginalise the importance of journalistic freedom in the court's decision. We raised these concerns with the Government in our letter. We did not receive an explicit response from the Government on this point, but the Government did indicate it was currently reflecting on the views expressed by the Committee and others.

19.  We note that the Government is currently considering the concerns around the drafting of Clause 4 and the decision in Flood. We urge the Government to ensure that any public interest defence contained in the Defamation Bill provide at least the minimum protection afforded at common law to editorial judgement.

AN ALTERNATIVE FORMULATION

20.  In proposing an alternative formulation to Clause 4, we considered carefully two alternatives: (i) "reasonable belief that the publication was in the public interest" and (ii) "no liability where libel concerns a matter of public interest."

LORD LESTER'S PROPOSAL: REASONABLE BELIEF THAT THE PUBLICATION WAS IN THE PUBLIC INTEREST

21.  At Second Reading in the Lords, Lord Lester of Herne Hill (a member of our Committee) outlined an alternative defence to that proposed by the Government in Clause 4. Lord Lester's proposal, developed by Sir Brian Neill, may be expressed as follows:

(1)  It is a defence in an action for defamation—

(a)  for the defendant to show that the statement complained of was on, or formed part of a publication, a matter of public interest, and

(b)  if the defendant acted honestly and reasonably believed at the time of publication that the making of the statement was in the public interest.

(2)  In the case of publication for the purposes of journalism the court shall, in determining whether the requirements of (a) and (b) are satisfied, give a wide discretion to the editor or other person responsible for the publication as to the content of the statement, the form of which the statement was made and the timing of the publication.

(3)  For the avoidance of doubt, the defence under this section may be relied upon irrespective of whether the statement complained of is a statement of fact or a statement of opinion.

(4)  A defence under the section shall not succeed if the claimant shows that he asked the defendant for the publication of a correction of the statement complained of and that the request was unreasonably refused or granted subject to unreasonable conditions.[7]

22.  The advantage of this formulation is that it provides the court with a clear test, without limiting their consideration with a checklist of factors. A public interest defence modelled on this formulation would allow judges to determine if indeed the defamatory material was protected, whilst allowing for careful fact-specific consideration, without reference to a rigid checklist.

23.  We have received written evidence from Professor Phillipson from the University of Durham Law School which raises concerns as to the impact of such a public interest defence. Professor Phillipson's prime concern is that this proposal does not provide adequate protection for the right to respect for private life in Article 8 ECHR. In particular, Phillipson argues that such a proposal would not protect the core principle of Reynolds—responsible journalism.

24.  Phillipson's concern is that this formulation leaves scope for protection of a journalist who publishes a statement, which he may reasonably believe is in the public interest as it relates to a serious allegation on a matter of high public importance (for example, allegations of corruption involving a senior politician), even though little attempt had been made to investigate its veracity. If this defence could be applied in such a way, then the requirement to act responsibly would fall away. Instead, publishers would be protected for what they thought, and not what they did to verify or investigate a story, subject only to a requirement of reasonableness.

25.  Phillipson takes the view that such a formulation may not survive a challenge at Strasbourg, as the European Court of Human Rights has maintained a strict insistence upon compliance with the ethics of journalism. Phillipson cites Pedersen & Baadsgaard v Denmark[8] and Radio France v France[9] as authority for the proposition that the European Court has repeatedly held that journalists benefit from the protection of Article 10 only where defamatory allegations are supported by an adequate factual matrix, based upon reasonable attempts to investigate their reliability. This was recently restated by the European Court earlier this year in Axel v Springer[10] at paragraphs 82-83:

"[...] Art.10(2) of the Convention states that freedom of expression carries with it "duties and responsibilities", which also apply to the media even with respect to matters of serious public concern. These duties and responsibilities are liable to assume significance when there is a question of attacking the reputation of a named individual and infringing the "rights of others". Thus, special grounds are required before the media can be dispensed from their ordinary obligation to verify factual statements that are defamatory of private individuals. Whether such grounds exist depends in particular on the nature and degree of the defamation in question and the extent to which the media can reasonably regard their sources as reliable with respect to the allegations (see Pedersen and Baadsgaard, cited above at [78], and Tonsbergs Blad A.S. and Haukom v Norway (510/04) ECHR 2007-III at [89]). The Court reiterates that the right to protection of reputation is a right which is protected by art.8 of the Convention as part of the right to respect for private life."

26.  Phillipson also argues that if this proposal were accepted, the courts may still choose to read into the provision the Strasbourg requirement of responsible journalism, using section 3(1) of the HRA 1998. This, Phillipson states, is undesirable because it would create uncertainty in the law, which in turn would trigger extensive litigation and judicial consideration. Instead, Phillipson advocates the retention of the Government's proposed Clause 4, with the addition of one feature from the Lester proposal—the requirement for a prompt and reasonable retraction.

27.  We have, however, received a contrary view from Professor Alastair Mullis, University of East Anglia, and Dr Andrew Scott, London School of Economics. Mullis and Scott support the Lester proposal, on the basis that it would be Convention-compliant. In reaching that conclusion, they take the view that the assessment of whether a journalist's belief was reasonable would involve essentially the same analysis as that which currently is applied under the Reynolds defence. The question for the court would be how the belief was reasonable, rather than how the journalism was responsible: this would invariably require inquiries into whether attempts were made to verify it, and whether it was investigated adequately. Mullis and Scott also assert that the protection afforded by Article 8 would no doubt shape the court's approach to the question of reasonable belief.

28.  We are not persuaded by the analysis of Professor Phillipson. We take the view that Lord Lester's proposal is Convention-compliant, as the courts, when assessing whether a journalist's belief was reasonable, will apply the same analysis already conducted under the Reynolds test but without a checklist of factors. A defence of 'reasonable belief that the publication was in the public interest', will clearly encompass consideration of what steps, if any, a publisher took to verify the alleged defamatory statement. Furthermore, we take the view that judges will inevitably use Article 8 to shape their understanding of 'public interest'. For these reasons, we are persuaded by the reasoning of Professor Mullis and Dr Scott. We recommend that the Government amend the Bill, to replace Clause 4 with a general test of the defendant's reasonable belief that the publication was in the public interest, without a checklist of factors.

The Libel Reform Group Proposal: No liability where libel concerns as a matter of public interest and prompt correction given

29.  The Libel Reform Group (LRG) have also proposed that an additional defence be inserted before Clause 4, which would protect genuine public interest statements made in good faith[11]. The LRG's new clause provides that statements which cannot be shown to be true are promptly clarified or corrected with adequate prominence, thus delivering an appropriate remedy to the claimant with no need for the expense of a full trial. The LRG argue this new defence would encourage prompt and suitably prominent clarifications which is what most complainants want.

30.  We note that Professor Phillipson has been heavily critical of this proposal in his written evidence. His first objection to this defence is the risk that it may well encourage irresponsible journalism, where media bodies can show that the statement relates to the public interest and promptly retract if it is incorrect. Provided a media body does not act with a reckless disregard for the truth (which is difficult to prove in and of itself), it would be completely protected by such a defence, if it publishes a statement which causes significant damage to the victim, without making any real attempt to verify it, so long as it is prepared to provide a prompt retraction.

31.  Professor Phillipson's second objection to the LRG proposal is that, in disabling the claimant from pursuing damage, the LRG proposal would serious under-protect the right to respect for private life in Article 8. Barring access to damages where an apology and retraction cannot rectify the harm suffered by the claimant risks breaching Article 8. Phillipson notes that such a provision could deny a claimant access to a remedy which is commensurate with the damage inflicted on his or her reputation.

32.  Phillipson cites the following as an illustrative example of the shortcoming of such a proposal. A very serious allegation of professional misconduct is made against an individual, just at the time of applying for a new post. The adverse publicity generated by the allegation prevents the individual from obtaining that post. A retraction published after the event is too late, and will not necessarily put that individual back to the position prior to the publication of the defamatory allegation.

33.  We are aware that there is case law from the European Court of Human Rights which indicates that such a provision would fall foul of the Convention. Peck v United Kingdom[12] and Armonas v Lithuania[13] are cited as authority for the proposition that a blanket prohibition on the ability to obtain damages for a serious defamatory allegation, regardless of what actual damage has been caused to the claimant, may breach Article 8. The Court has stated that protection of reputation in a practical, effective way was part of Article 8, and that inadequate remedies may fail to provide individuals with the protection they could legitimately expect under Article 8. In Armonas v Lithuania, the Court did not need to consider if the low level of damages available for a privacy claim breached Article 13 (the right to an effective remedy) because adequate, effective protection of Article 8 itself required the State to ensure that applicants could enforce their right to private life. States are therefore under a positive obligation to show respect for private life—and this in itself requires a certain kind of remedy—one which is effective and commensurate with the expectation of protection provided by the Convention.

34.  We do not support the LRG's proposed reformulation of the public interest defence. We share the view of Professor Phillipson on this matter and have serious concerns as to the compatibility of the LRG proposal with Article 8 ECHR. A blanket prohibition on damages provides insufficient protection from damage to reputation. Prompt correction will not always be the most appropriate remedy for claimants in defamation actions, and to deny access to damages will risk injustice.

Clause 5—Operators of Websites

THE THRESHOLD FOR A CLAUSE 5 NOTICE: DEFAMATORY OR UNLAWFUL

35.  Clause 5 provides for a defence for website operators in a defamation action, provided they did not post the statement complained of. Where a complainant does not know the identity and/or contact details of the author of the statement, he can send a notice of complaint to the website operator. The website operator will then be compelled to remove the material if they have no means of contacting the author. Clause 5(6) of the Bill requires that a claimant need only explain in his notice why the statement complained of is defamatory and not unlawful.

36.  We asked the Government to consider redrafting Clause 5, so as to raise the threshold from one of 'defamatory' to 'unlawful', which means complainants would have to consider if any defence applied to the posted statement, and which would bring the clause into line with Regulation 19 of the E-Commerce (EU Directive) Regulations. The use of 'defamatory' rather than 'unlawful' in this context presents a difficulty in terms of consistency with Regulation 19 of the E-Commerce (EU Directive) Regulations.[14] Regulation 19 restricts liability of web providers to instances where they have actual knowledge of the "unlawful activity". By contrast, Clause 5 only requires a claimant to demonstrate why a statement is defamatory. The effect of the use "defamatory" rather than "unlawful" means that claimants would not have to consider if any defence were applicable.

37.  This could create a chilling effect, whereby statements which are in fact lawful by virtue of an available defence are removed from the public domain on the basis that a claimant has merely asserted they are defamatory. Unless website operators contest the validity of such notices, defamatory material which is nonetheless lawful will likely be suppressed. This places website operators in a precarious position whereby they can either comply and are protected, or challenge the validity of a mere assertion of defamation (rather than unlawful activity) and risk financial cost and associated strains of litigation.

38.  The Government indicated in its response to us that it is concerned that to adopt the higher threshold would overcomplicate the process. The Government takes the view that requiring complainants to provide details of why they consider the posting to be unlawful, rather than just defamatory, would make it more difficult for a layman to make a complaint without first having sought legal advice, and would add to the cost and difficulty involved.

39.  The Government response also distinguishes between the purposes of the E-Commerce (EU Directive) Regulations and of Clause 5, so as to justify the inconsistency between the two. Under the E-Commerce Regulations, a website operator, acting as intermediary hosting material, is potentially liable once notified that a statement is unlawful. By contrast, a website operator is not liable under Clause 5 of the Bill provided they did not post the defamatory material. The website operator, according to the Government, acts merely as a middle man and does not need to consider the merits of the complaint in order to protect itself from liability.

40.  We are not satisfied with the Government's distinction in this matter. We think there is a real risk that website operators will be forced to arbitrate on whether something is defamatory or lawful, and will to readily make decisions on commercial grounds to remove allegedly defamatory material rather than engage with the process. As drafted, Clause 5 risks removing material from the internet, which, although it may be defamatory, may be lawful if a relevant defence applies. Material which is lawful may be suppressed because website operators are served with such notices. We recommend that the threshold for a Clause 5 notice should be elevated to 'unlawful', which would also ensure consistency with the E-Commerce Directive and the Pre-Action Protocol for defamation.

REGULATIONS AND PROCEDURE

41.  Clause 5(5) provides that regulations will set out a process for website operators to put complainants in touch with the author of the allegedly defamatory material. Clause 5(8) makes it clear that the negative resolution procedure will be used here.

42.  We asked the Government to reconsider the use of the negative resolution procedure, and opt instead to adopt the affirmative resolution procedure so as to allow for greater scope for debate with a view to producing a coherent, balanced process. We also asked the Government to commit to publishing draft regulations in the near future.

43.  The Government has informed us that it is aware of the views on the issue of whether the affirmative resolution procedure is a more appropriate process in this context and is giving consideration to this issue. The Government has also confirmed that it intends to consult stakeholders on the contents of the draft regulations, with a view to doing so by the end of the year.

44.  We welcome the Government's intention to consult with stakeholders on the contents of the draft regulations by the end of the year. We recommend that the Government amend Clause 5(8), so as to adopt the affirmative resolution procedure, which will enable greater consultation and scrutiny of the forthcoming regulations. These regulations will effectively govern how website operators will be expected to respond to defamatory notices, and therefore should be the subject of full Parliamentary debate via the affirmative resolution procedure.

UNIVERSITIES AND COLLEGES

45.  Universities and colleges are also likely to be affected by Clause 5. On the one hand, they are very often website operators, and would therefore only be able to avail themselves of the defence under Clause 5 if they comply with any notice served upon them. On the other hand, universities and colleges are under a statutory duty, by virtue of section 43(2) of the Education (No.2) Act 1986, to "take such steps as are reasonably practicable to ensure that freedom of speech within the law is secured for members, students and employees of the establishment and for visiting speakers."

46.  Two organisations, UCISA and Janet, have highlighted in evidence to us that Clause 5 as drafted may place such institutions in a position of conflict with their duties under the Education Act. Such institutions owe a duty to promote freedom of speech, but under Clause 5, may be obliged to remove material on receipt of a notice from a complainant. Similarly, institutions may be placed in the same position of conflict if they are required to reveal the identity of an individual that has posted allegedly defamatory material without their consent.

47.  In its submission, Janet has suggested that educational institutions should be able to leave the alleged defamatory material in place, without incurring liability, until a judicial view is obtained on the balance between the conflicting legal duties.

48.  We note the concerns raised by UCISA and Janet. We think that the Government should consider providing statutory guidance so as to make it plain what steps universities and colleges should take when faced with a Clause 5 notice. We think that this statutory guidance should further clarify whether or not an educational institution will be liable under the Education (No. 2) Act 1986 if it complies with a Clause 5 notice and removes allegedly defamatory material from its website. We also recommend that regulations made pursuant to Clause 5 should make provision to preserve the anonymity of whistleblowers.

Clause 8—Single Publication Rule

49.  Clause 8 of the Bill introduces a single publications rule, which prevents an action being brought in relation to publication of the same material by the same publisher after a one year limitation period from the date of the first publication of that material to the public or to a section of the public. Under the current law, each time an alleged defamatory statement is published, it becomes actionable. This rule would restrict a claimant's ability to bring an action in defamation where a statement was published and then subsequently re-published online. Clause 8 would replace the longstanding principle that each publication of defamatory material gives rise to a separate cause of action which is subject to its own limitation period.

50.  Article 6 ECHR can be engaged in matters of limitation and access to justice. The Government have recognised this concern in their Memorandum, and indicate that no claimant should suffer injustice as a result, as the courts will be able to rely on the existing provisions under the Limitation Act 1980 to have regard to all the circumstances in a case.

51.  In evidence to the Committee, Mullis and Scott highlight that this clause, as drafted, may not achieve the aim of limiting liability. In their analysis, Mullis and Scott argue that any judge faced with a claimant who argues credibly that the reading of a defamatory online publication that took place yesterday, and which might be emulated tomorrow, has had adverse consequences for his Article 8 rights. Most judges faced with a case would likely waive the limitation period. Mullis and Scott suggest that judges will find themselves in this position on every occasion were a claimant manages to convince the court they have suffered 'serious' harm. The effectiveness of Clause 8 as a curb on litigation is therefore illusory.

52.  Mullis and Scott suggest a remedy to this issue may be through the introduction of a new defence of 'non-culpable republication': an archivist would be protected after the lapse of one year following first publication provided he appended a notice to the archived article. Such a notice would highlight that the veracity of the material was under challenge, thus mitigating the impact of the alleged libel.

53.  We note the evidence of Professor Mullis and Dr Scott on the impact of Clause 8 and the single publication rule. We ask the Government to reassure us that Clause 8, as drafted, will provide adequate protection for subsequent publication of defamatory material. If, however, the Government cannot persuade us that Clause 8 will function effectively so as to curb litigation for multiple publication, we would encourage the Government to explore an alternative defence of non-culpable republication.

Corporate claimants

54.  One omission from the Bill consistently raised by libel reform campaigners and indeed in debate in both Houses is the treatment of corporations as natural persons for the purposes of defamation actions.

55.  Professor Phillipson in his evidence suggests that the failure to impose any restrictions on corporations' ability to sue in defamation renders the law on reputation inconsistent and incoherent. Defamation law and the protection afforded under Article 8 has developed on the basis that the protection of an individual's reputation is a significant human rights issue. Corporate claimants have neither personal emotions nor dignity, and yet are treated as natural persons for the purposes of defamation.

56.  The Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee recommended the creation of a new category of "corporate defamation" requiring a corporation to prove actual damage to its business before an action could be brought.[15] That Committee also envisaged alternative means by which corporations can seek redress, through non-legal avenues such as publicity campaigns to counter falsehoods and unfounded criticism,[16] to the tort of malicious falsehood, requiring proof of damage maliciously or recklessly caused.[17] A similar approach was adopted by Lord Lester in his Private Member's Bill, which requires proof of substantial financial loss to the body corporate before a claim in defamation is actionable.[18]

57.  The Bill does not contain specific provision relating to the ability of corporations to bring actions in defamation, with the Ministry of Justice concluding that such a step is not necessary in light of the present reforms and in the context of the reform of civil litigation funding.[19]

58.  We take the view that businesses ought only to succeed in defamation proceedings where they can prove actual damage. We therefore recommend that the Bill be amended so as to require non-natural legal persons to show substantial financial loss. This requirement should be relative to the nature, size and scope of the claimant business or organisation.


2   CCPR/C/GBR/CO/6 at para 25  Back

3   JUSTICE, Defamation Bill, Second Reading Briefing, July 2012 Back

4   Lord Steyn, "Defamation and Privacy: Momentum for substantive and procedural change?" 3rd Annual Boydell Lecture, 26 May 2010 Back

5   [2012] UKSC 11 Back

6   See [2012] UKSC 11, per Lord Mance at para 180  Back

7   HL Hansard, 9 October 2012, col 957, per Lord Lester of Herne Hill Back

8   App no. 49017/99 (17 December 2004) Back

9   App no. 53984/00 (30 March 2004) Back

10   [2012] E.M.L.R. 15 Back

11   See the LRG Second Reading Briefing Note: http://www.senseaboutscience.org/data/files/Libel/Briefing_note_for_second_reading_debate_of_Defamation_Bill_2012.pdf Back

12   (2003) 36 EHRR 41 Back

13   36919/02 (25 Nov 2008) Back

14   We also note that the Pre-Action Protocol for defamation also requires that the claimant explain why the statement is unlawful, rather than merely defamatory.

 Back

15   House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee (24 February 2010) Press Standards, Privacy and Libel (Second Report of Session 2009-10, Vol. 1) (London: TSO), at paragraph 178.  Back

16   House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee, Second Report of Session 2009-10, at paragraph 176. Back

17   House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee, Second Report of Session 2009-10, at paragraph 178.  Back

18   Clause 11 of Lord Lester's Private Member's Bill. Back

19   Largely implemented by Part 2 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012.  Back


 
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