Sunday, 9 February 2014

Mick Hume - Northern Ireland's libel law is an execrable affront to freedom of expression

After Leveson - Mick Hume from Ellwood Atfield on Vimeo, August 2013.

London journalist Mick Hume is spiked’s editor-at-large and editor of the new book 'There is No Such Thing as a Free Press… And We Need One More Than Ever.' He opposed the Defamation Act 2013 for not going far enough. He has written on it, free speech generally and Leveson here, here and here.

Mick Hume also opposed the recent intervention into Northern Ireland politics by the House of Lords as members attempt to push forward with libel reform. Writing in the Belfast Telegraph here, Mick Hume explained the he himself has been both defamed by the media and sued in the libel courts. Mick Hume gave his comprehensive guide to the complexities of defamation law:
  1. Northern Ireland's existing libel law is an execrable affront to freedom of expression;
  2. The proposed reforms from England would make some aspects of the law better – but render some even worse;
  3. Either way, it is none of the House of Lords' business.
The May/June 2012 decision by Sammy Wilson to avoid any use of the legislation consent motion and thereby veto the Defamation Act 2013, means that Northern Ireland operates under the old libel regime. The old regime was described by Mick Hume as laws that have "long been the worst legislation on UK statute books." 

After losing a libel trial in 2000 and bankrupted by costs and damages, Mick Hume described the old libel laws as "a disgrace to democracy and a menace to free speech". Adding that the laws assume that the accused is guilty until proven otherwise. Mick Hume also said:
"But perhaps you should be careful what you wish for. The reforms in the new English law do not amount to a charter for freedom of expression. They accept the fundamental assumption that the courts should have the right to impose strict limits on what can be said, or written. 
The Defamation Act makes matters worse by removing the presumption of a jury trial, giving even more power to the judges. This is justified on the ground of reducing costs. But there are even more important things than money. 
Just like freedom of expression, the right to trial by jury rests upon the belief that 'ordinary people' are capable of weighing the evidence and deciding for themselves. The notion that m'lud-knows-best reflects, instead, a patronisingly elitist, authoritarian attitude to us 'plebs'. 
This snobbish prejudice has been reflected in the UK campaign for libel reform, which emphasised the need to defend 'responsible' authors. The Defamation Act accordingly offers academics and scientists special protection from being sued if the disputed work is published in a respectable, peer-reviewed journal. 
Yet, if you believe in freedom of expression, there should be no difference in the law's attitude to a 'responsible' expert and an 'irresponsible' idiot. Nobody should have to pass a respectability test to qualify for the indivisible right to freedom of speech and of the Press. 
The implication of this special protection is that liberty only really matters for those who serve the 'public interest', as defined by the libel courts, of course. But to have any meaning, free speech must also extend to those the mainstream deems 'irresponsible' – be that the Italian astronomer Galileo (convicted of heresy by the Inquisition for suggesting that the Earth moves around the Sun), or the anti-Semitic French 'comedian' Dieudonne (just banned from Britain for telling offensive jokes). 
The Defamation Act 2013 is not good enough. Better to update the spirit of Cato, the 18th century London writer who inspired the First Amendment that protects free speech in the US and who declared that, "I would rather many libels escape than there be any restrictions on a free Press". As for the House of Lords' shenanigans: demanding that England's Defamation Act be extended to Northern Ireland this week, one Tory peer commended it as a "liberalising, modernising law". 
That is rich coming from an archaic and undemocratic institution that should have no place interfering in the laws of England and Wales, never mind extending its gnarled reach."
Mick Hume in the Belfast Telegraph in full here

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