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Libel: Allow Free Speech

Comment 9th September 2010

These days the rich can use libel laws to prevent legitiamate criticism. They rely on fear and the high stakes poker game that the High Court has turned into. Having a winnable case is a very minor consideration. Investigative journalism does not take off because rumours do not circulate.

If big business threatens a private individual, or even a small newspaper, with libel proceedings, they have to back down unless they have £100,000 to spare EVEN IF THEY HAVE A WINNABLE CASE.

Introduce a preliminary stage where the person alledging libel must establish to the court's satisfaction that they might have a winnable case. Optionally allow the defendant to argue against this. This must not prejudice use of evidence or arguments later. Whatever the outcome, the defendant does not pay a penny for the preliminary stage, and will not usually be legally represented. Block cases going to full trial without the courts approval.

SECOND Do not recognise in the UK libel awards granted abroad. The Barclay brothers took libel action against The Times in a small regional French court and won. It is arguable that this was because French law is different making it easier for the to win, hence any repetition becomes a criminal offence enforcable in the UK with fines and extradition. The idea that a major national newspaper should be tried in a small Fench court where its circulation is approximately zero is absurd, but a legal fact.

Why does this matter?

The mere threat of libel action is preventing honest fair-minded discussion, let alone criticism, questions about probity, pharacutical safety, etc.

I would cite an example of a badly run agressive company with a third rate product that is using sheer financial muscle to corner a UK market, but have seen lare flourishing discussion groups shut down for mild criticism.

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