Friday, 28 March 2014

Mike Harris - "Why is free speech not good enough for Northern Ireland?"

Writing in the Huffington Post here, Mike Harris (@mjrharris) has called the DUP's decision to veto libel reform an outrageous decision. He began by explaining the campaign for libel reform in England and Wales:
"It took endless humiliation before parliament got the message and decided to reform the law of libel: the UN Human Rights Council said our libel law chilled free speech across the entire globe, American academics faced our courts for writing about the funding of Al Qaeda, Barack Obama signed into law an act to protect Americans from our libel law and decent scientists such as Simon Singh Ben Goldacre and NHS cardiologist Pete Wilsmhurst faced ruin thanks to the law.
We looked at the story of how the Defamation Act 2013 came into force, from start to finish, via David Allen Green here. Mike Harris noted that the three major political parties to made a commitment to libel reform in their general election manifestos in 2010:
"They didn't qualify this bold commitment with "except in Northern Ireland". Why would they? The law in Northern Ireland has always been substantially the same as the law in England and Wales, that is until the government reformed it."
Looking at Sammy Wilson's single stroke and unchecked decision to veto the reform, he said:
The law was blocked in a less than democratic manner that is still clouded in secrecy. The former minister of finance and personnel, the combustible Sammy Wilson MLA, withdrew a paper on adoption of the new Defamation Bill without scrutiny by either the Assembly or the Executive. The finance department refuses to comment, even to a political committee in Stormont, on why consents for the Defamation Bill weren't sought in the required timescale. What is known is that just days after the DUP's Ian Paisley Jnr MP made no less than 10 interventions casting doubt on the Defamation Bill in its second reading debate in the House of Commons, Wilson withdrew the paper relating to adoption of the Defamation Act.
On Northern Ireland journalists:
"First minister and DUP leader Peter Robinson has said it is "absurd" to claim that the libel law "restricts in some way the media from doing their job". Yet, Northern Ireland's media seem under siege. As Sam McBride, the political correspondent of the News Letter tweeted:
"The volume of solicitors' letters from DUP to BBC over one Spotlight episode gives a pretty clear hint as to why DUP blocked libel reform".
He stressed Northern Ireland's special need for a robust opposition to keep the government in check:
"Viscount Colville (himself a respected BBC journalist) relayed to the House of Lords testimony he had been given by the editor of the Belfast Telegraph, Mike Gilson:
"In a small country without official opposition the media's scrutinising role of government and institutions is even more crucial. I have edited newspapers in every country of the United Kingdom and the time and money now needed to fight off vexatious legal claims against us here is the highest I have ever experienced"."
Mike Harris explained how undemocratic events have been:
"The DUP have been very clear in stating their opposition to reform. Worse still, due to the cross-community provisions in the Good Friday Agreement, as the largest Unionist party the DUP can effectively block any Bill they don't like - even though they only control 38 of the Assembly's 108 seats. With a majority in the Assembly sympathetic towards the prospect of libel reform and a consultation showing 90% of people in Northern Ireland back reform of the law, this is hardly democratic."
Mike Nesbitt's libel reform bill has been frozen by Simon Hamilton's libel review. On this, Mike said:
"A Private Member's Bill launched by Mike Nesbitt, the leader of the UUP, attracted support in the Assembly. But now it has been put on ice after the new DUP Finance Minister set the Northern Ireland Law Commission off to run a consultation on the law of libel. While the Law Commission is an esteemed institution, many politicians feel this is an attempt to kick the matter into the long grass. No date has been set for the Commission to launch their consultation, it may not happen for a year. Worse still, evidence submitted to the Law Commission will not be protected by privilege, leaving NGOs reporting on the libel threats dished out by politicians themselves open to libel actions."
On events in the House of Lords led by Lord Lexden, to push forward with libel reform, Mike said:
"It is a direct challenge to the DUP who felt they alone could decide on libel reform."

Mike Harris is an advisor to English PEN and the Libel Reform Campaign. Previous blog by Mike Harris on MLNI here.

No comments:

Post a Comment