Libel law shake-up risks being 'killed off', say top authors
Changes to Britain's 'ruinous' libel laws are being threatened by political row over press regulation
A BILL reforming Britain's 170-year-old libel laws is in danger of being "killed off" because it has been caught up in the row over press regulation, triggered by the Leveson report, a group of leading authors and playwrights has said.
In an open letter to the leaders of the three major parties, literary luminaries including Sir Tom Stoppard, Margaret Drabble, Stephen Fry and Ian McEwan say they are "deeply concerned" the reforms will be abandoned after three years of going through the legislative process.
Their anxiety stems from changes to the bill made by the Labour peer Lord Puttnam who last month inserted amendments seeking to establish a press watchdog. David Cameron, who is opposed to a media regulator backed by statute, has made it clear he will not allow the libel bill to return to the House of Commons, unless the Liberal Democrats support efforts to remove Puttnam's amendments, The Guardian says.
In their letter, the authors say it would be "entirely inappropriate, and even reckless, for libel reform to be sacrificed to the current political stalemate". They argue that existing laws have made London "the libel capital of the world" and say scientists, authors, journalists and activists have been silenced because they fear "ruinous" fines and legal costs if a libel case is brought against them and they lose.
The authors – who also include Julian Barnes, Claire Tomalin, Dame Antonia Fraser and Sir David Hare – say British libel laws have not changed substantially since 1843.
As well as being a "national disgrace" they are an international concern, they say. In 2010, US President Barack Obama introduced laws in America to protect US citizens from British courts.
The writer Gillian Slovo, daughter of the anti-apartheid leader Joe Slovo, told the Guardian: "It would be a terrible thing if the bill was killed, not because it isn't supported by all three parties, because it is, but because it became entangled in Leveson. It would be a great loss."
Writing in the Guardian, media blogger Roy Greenslade says there "is still time" to rescue the bill. "Cameron and Clegg must make an on-the-record pledge in the Commons to introduce a proper system of low-cost arbitration within an overall Leveson settlement," he writes. "Labour's leader, Ed Miliband, must accept that promise and ensure the amendment is withdrawn."
"If not," warns Greenslade, "the defamation bill will fall and freedom of expression for authors, academics and journalists will continue to be inhibited." ·