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British libel law becomes marginally saner


At last, a tiny piece of good news for free speech from England and Wales: the Defamation Act 2013 goes into effect tomorrow, and will make it substantially harder for rich, powerful people to sue their critics in the UK. The new law requires that plaintiffs show "serious harm" in order to bring a suit. It also protects academic and scientific publications (an important issue since the British Chiropractic Association sued Simon Singh for publishing a critical scientific review of chiropractic). It adds a defense on the basis of a good-faith belief that publication is in the public interest.

Perhaps most importantly, it tightens up the "libel tourism" rules that allowed corrupt overseas dictators and oligarchs to sue news outlets based outside the UK in a UK court, merely by showing that someone in the UK read the disputed article; and it establishes a "single publication" rule to stop publishers from being sued multiple times over the same disclosure.

However, Northern Ireland has not adopted these reforms; English PEN's Jo Glanville points out that this creates a huge loophole for people who want to bring baseless libel claims in the UK -- they can just sue in an NI court.

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London libel case sought to silence journalist

"English litigation is a long and costly process that could almost have been designed to bludgeon a defendant into submission." — Nature writer Quirin Schiermeier, who recently prevailed in a characteristically insane U.K. libel action. Rob

You Can't Read This Book, new book on the ugly truth of English libel law

The Guardian published a long excerpt from Nick Cohen's forthcoming You Can't Read This Book: Censorship in an Age of Freedom, a fantastic-looking book that reveals the dirty truth of English libel law, where "money buys silence" for some of the world's most notorious dictators, thieves, and bad guys. English libel law is so broad that it allows, for example, Russian oligarchs to sue Russian newspapers for punitive sums ("the cost of libel actions in England and Wales is 140 times higher than the European average") in an English court, merely by demonstrating that someone, somewhere in England looked at the paper's website. And yet, the libel law in England and Wales doesn't actually protect people from the most common forms of libelous publication: false declarations of criminal suspicion by the police, false claims of financial irregularities from credit reporting bureaux and false statements in former employers' reference letters are protected unless they can be shown to have been malicious and negligent.

The book doesn't appear to have US distribution, but there are some importers selling it on Amazon's US site, too.

In 2006, reporters on the Danish newspaper Ekstra Bladet decided to investigate the stunning rise of the Icelandic bank Kaupthing, which was buying assets across Denmark. How, they asked, had a bank from a volcanic island without the resources to support a huge and voracious financial sector become so powerful? The newsdesk decided they should concentrate on the links between the bank, Russian oligarchs and tax havens. Kaupthing was furious. It was accustomed to receiving praise from the financial press for the entrepreneurial dynamism of its managers. It threatened to sue Ekstra Bladet in Copenhagen and at the same time filed a complaint with the Danish Press Council, which handled cases of breaches of press ethics.

The paper defended its journalism and the Danish Press Council rejected the bank's complaint. Kaupthing withdrew its Danish lawsuit and the argument seemed to be over until Ekstra Bladet's bewildered editors heard that the bank was now suing them in London. The costs were beyond anything they had experienced before. In Denmark, lawyers consider a libel action that costs £25,000 expensive. In London, lawyers for Kaupthing and Ekstra Bladet ran up costs of close to £1m before the case came to court. Ekstra Bladet could not run the risk of doubling, maybe trebling, the bill if it lost. It agreed to pay substantial damages to Kaupthing, cover its legal expenses and carry a formal apology on its website.

A few months later, Kaupthing, along with the other entrepreneurial, go-ahead Icelandic banks, collapsed. Iceland's GDP fell by 65%, one-third of the population said they were considering emigration and the British and Dutch governments demanded compensation equivalent to the output of the entire Icelandic economy for the lost deposits of their citizens in Kaupthing and other banks.

You Can't Read This Book: why libel tourists love London (via Naked Capitalism)