Friday, 28 February 2014

Viscount Colville - Journalists were bombarded with daily, sometimes hourly, threats of defamation

Viscount Colville of Culross speaks in favour of libel reform in Northern Ireland
Viscount Colville of Culross made compelling point in the House of Lords on Tuesday 25 February 2014 in favour of libel reform in Northern Ireland.
"My Lords, I declare an interest as a producer at the BBC. I support this amendment and add my concerns to those of other noble Lords at the refusal of the Northern Ireland Executive to implement the Defamation Act 2013. I was sorry not to have been able to attend Committee but I read, with regret, the Hansard report of the Minister’s speech, in which she said she could do little beyond offering some encouragement for this to go forward."

He provided material evidence on the chilling effect of the libel laws in Northern Ireland to silence debate and investigative journalism:
The failure to implement the Act is having a deleterious effect on free speech in Northern Ireland. Even before the Defamation Act 2013 was implemented in England and Wales, Northern Ireland was particularly blighted as a place where free speech could flourish. The conservative nature of the libel judiciary in Northern Ireland means that a judge has to decide that a jury would be perverse to decide a libel case in favour of one party or the other. This sets the bar very high for the prompt resolution of disputes and allows a plaintiff to say that matters must go before a jury. As a result, trials are lengthy and expensive, whereas, in England and Wales, the judge can, at an early stage, determine the questions of fact about whether a statement is defamatory on a simple balance of probabilities test, which considerably shortens the process. 
The disadvantages facing authors in Northern Ireland have been fully exploited by both politicians and putative plaintiffs. The BBC is one of the few organisations big enough to defy the threats of those who want to chill free speech and stop investigative journalism. My indefatigable and courageous colleagues who work on Northern Ireland’s investigative programme “Spotlight” find themselves under attack in a way that is hard to believe in the rest of the UK. 
I cite two recent cases."
One, the misuse of libel laws by a business woman to shield improper conduct:
"In October 2012 “Spotlight” broadcast a programme called “Belize Oil” which investigated the business affairs of Susan Morrice, a Belfast-born businesswoman, now based in Denver. She raised money for an oil exploratory company called International Natural Energy. Astonishingly, the company struck oil in Belize and made millions of dollars. However, the class B shareholders—many from Northern Ireland—who were not professional investors, did not receive a penny in dividends. They sued Ms Morrice, who was found guilty in a Caribbean court of having siphoned off thousands of pounds of company money for her personal use. 
As the programme was being prepared for transmission, the journalists involved were bombarded with daily, sometimes hourly, threats of defamation. After transmission, a libel writ was issued against the programme. Tens of thousands of pounds of licence payers’ money was spent as BBC journalists and lawyers prepared the defence case, only for Ms Morrice to drop the case. This is the woman who has Northern Ireland’s gas and oil exploration rights."
He notes the Red Sky scandal:
"Likewise, in July last year “Spotlight” transmitted a programme looking at the history of a housing maintenance company, Red Sky, which lost its contract with the Northern Ireland Housing Executive. The company had been accused of poor workmanship and charging for work that it had not done. Prior to a meeting of the housing executive to reconsider the ending of the company’s contract, a DUP member of the executive, Jenny Palmer, told BBC’s “Spotlight” that the DUP Social Development Minister Nelson McCausland’s special adviser had put pressure on her to change her vote at a key housing executive board meeting and to vote in favour of extending the firm’s contract. 
“Spotlight” made public part of an e-mail from the leader of the DUP, the First Minister, Peter Robinson, which was sent to the BBC prior to transmission. The e-mail warned the BBC that if it went ahead and broadcast the criticisms levelled against him in the programme, he would instruct a lawyer to begin libel action against the BBC. The programme was transmitted and included criticisms of him, but he did not follow up on that threat. Yet again, thousands of pounds of licence payers’ money was spent to defend the threat of that libel action. All the people I have spoken to felt sure that the public interest defence in Clause 4 of the Defamation Act would have been a great foil against those threats. Newspapers in Northern Ireland publish some brave reporting, but they do not have the power and the money to be able to defend themselves against those threats in the same way as the BBC."
Small publications:
"It is not just the big media organisations which suffer the chilling effect on free speech from the libel laws of Northern Ireland. I have spoken to lawyers who read books for small publishers in the country to advise on possible libel risk. They tell me that, in Northern Ireland, the threat of libel is so great that they raise many more points of libel risk than they would when advising on publication in the rest of the United Kingdom."
Northern Ireland already has an adversarial deficit:
"As noble Lords have pointed out, there is no substantial political opposition in Northern Ireland, so in no other part of the United Kingdom is it so important that the media scrutinise the actions of politicians, yet this is the very place where they find it so hard to do so. I say to the Minister: now is the time to ensure that the major provisions of the Defamation Act are implemented in Northern Ireland, in the interests of transparency and democratic accountability."
Previous post featuring Viscount Colville here. Hansard report here.

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