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Abolish libel and slander

Comment 7th July 2010

When someone (journalist or anyone else) makes a potentially damaging claim about someone, the victim is entitled to rebut the claim. Of course the victim may choose to ignore it. This may be sensible where the person making the charge is known as a perpetrator of nonsense, since few people will take such a perpetrator seriously.

 

Of course, there is a worry that some people will assume that ‘there is no smoke without fire.’ But the likelihood of people making that assumption seems greater if there are laws against libel and slander. For, against the background of such laws, the risk of prosecution tends to inhibit people from speaking out (even if they are in the right). So if someone does speak out, people may be inclined to think that he must be on to something.

 

But without laws against libel and slander, when anyone can say anything without fear of prosecution, someone who impugns the reputation of another would need to substantiate his claims before anyone (or most) would take any notice of him. As a consequence the general public would be likely to become more critical and less gullible. Of course, there might be a lot more lampooning than there is currently; but it would generally be regarded as mere lampooning and treated as a joke. That seems to me to be a healthier environment all round.

Why does this matter?

Our current laws against libel and slander are generally recoignised to be a form of censorship. Current proposals to reform the laws, involving specific ‘public interest’ or ‘responsible journalism’ defences, are inadequate, because what counts as falling within the inevitably vague definition of the defence is always decided by establishment representatives (judges, politicians or others), perhaps in the light of advice from other establishment experts. So it still allows the imposition of establishment views.

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