Tuesday, 4 March 2014

The "blizzard", "confetti", "volume" and "bombardment" of vexatious libel writs against Northern Ireland journalists

Northern Ireland journalists have repeatedly referred to the journalistic climate of libel intimidation in Northern Ireland.
  • Mike Gilson has worked across the British Isles and has said that Northern Ireland sees far more "vexatious claims"
  • Sam McBride has spoken of the "volume" of libel writs. 
  • Anthony McIntyre has said that letters are sent like "confetti". 
  • Newton Emerson has spoken of a "blizzard" of writs. 
  • BBC producer and peer Viscount Colville of Culross said that journalists had been "bombarded with daily, sometimes hourly, threats of defamation." 
  • Lord Lester of Herne Hill explained how a journalist who he represented sued by the Irish News for £25,000 found the "experience was so traumatic that she gave up her profession as a journalist." 
  • Ruth Dudley Edwards spoke of "the DUP’s enthusiasm for restrictive libel laws."
  • Mick Fealty said: "I can think of more than one Northern Irish politician that’s none to slow to pull the legal trigger when the occasion arises." 
  • Mick Fealty also said: "Who needs to visit Pyongyang when we can have Pyongyang here?" 
  • More worryingly, Mick Fealty reported that NI politicians now enjoy commercial indemnity, meaning "our MLAs want to be able to sue our ass. But be allowed lie with impunity." 
  • Eamonn Mallie has said "I'll see you in court" is the DUP's new "war cry"
  • Journalist Patrick Kane (@patrick_kane_) said that the libel law system has been "exploited by many, and gagged even more."
  • Former journalist Mike Nesbitt explained all libel actions he encountered involved the DUP (see here).
And here's the main issue and concern, as Mike Nesbitt said:
"The point is the laws are regularly utilised behind the scenes to try to influence, warn off, possibly even threaten."
And here:
"Many members of [the media] tell me they face regular threats of legal action for defamation from a particular local political party.
And so Lord Lester has said that he can see no good reason for the June 2012 decision to veto by Sammy Wilson, other than "it’s because politicians in Northern Ireland want to be able to sue newspapers more readily."

The House of Lords peer Alastair Lexden who tabled the amendment to the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill spoke to many Northern Ireland journalists and explained the lessons he learnt:
After talking to diverse journalists in the Province, it seems to me that many of the Province’s politicians are notoriously thin skinned about criticism. Journalists and writers complain of their easy resort to the threat of defamation and keep Mr Paul Tweed, whom the noble Lord, Lord Lester mentioned, busy issuing threats of defamations. 
Let me give on example. On 6 August 2012 the News Letter, one of the Province’s leading newspapers, reported that there was a row between politicians in County Antrim about whether to support a proposal to introduce plain cigarette packaging as it would adversely affect their constituents who worked in the local tobacco factory. The paper said that Ian Paisley Jnr, the local MP, was unavailable for comment because he was on holiday. As this was in August, it was perfectly reasonable that he should have been on holiday. Surely even the most hard-working politician is allowed to take a bit of time off to have a rest. However, his lawyer, Paul Tweed, wrote to the paper to say that Mr Paisley was not on holiday at the time of publication and to suggest that he was on holiday and unavailable to deal with the constituents’ concerns was defamatory. 
The News Letter published a clarification, but was there really a need to send a letter threatening defamation? This is just one of many threatening letters that have been used to cow journalists in the Province. If journalists and authors are going to receive letters threatening defamation for such vexatious cases, imagine the fear there must be in publishing anything more critical of politicians. The new defences against libel available in the rest of the UK from later this year will offer them protection and surely encourage the advance of free speech in the Province. 
However, as the noble Lord, Lord Lester, has mentioned, it is not just the people of Northern Ireland who deserve to be protected by the libel reforms; the rest of the people of the United Kingdom do as well. The possibility that these libel tourists who flock to London will now flock to the Belfast libel courts seems very dangerous, and will threaten authors who thought that the cause of free speech had been so strongly enhanced by the passing of the Act."
Lord Lexden in full here. But as Newton Emerson said, we need to hear not just from those in the media, but also academics and scientists.

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