Lawmakers say UK government must act to stop libel tourism ‘humiliation’ of Britain

By Jill Lawless, AP
Wednesday, February 24, 2010

UK lawmakers: govt must act to stop libel tourism

LONDON — A group of lawmakers urged Britain’s government on Wednesday to change laws that lead foreigners to bring libel cases to U.K. courts, saying the laws risk stifling investigative journalism and media freedom.

The chairman of the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport committee said it was “a humiliation” that several U.S. states have introduced laws to protect American citizens from the enforcement of legal settlements in foreign jurisdictions such as Britain. A similar federal law is currently before the U.S. Congress.

The committee, which has members from Britain’s three main political parties, said in a report that the government must act urgently to redress the balance of libel laws that have “tipped too far in favor of the plaintiff.”

“It is a humiliation that U.S. legislators have felt it necessary to take steps to protect freedom of speech from what are seen as unreasonable incursions by our courts,” said committee chairman and Conservative legislator John Whittingdale.

Britain’s libel laws are considered more claimant-friendly than those in many other countries, leading to “libel tourism” by foreigners who likely would lose their lawsuits in their own countries.

Libel laws in the United States require claimants to prove that a published article was both false and written maliciously. In Britain, the burden of proof falls on the defendant to demonstrate what it published was true.

The committee said the government should consider reversing that burden in libel cases involving corporations, which generally have much greater resources to fight a case than defendants. But it said the burden should remain with the defendant in cases involving individuals.

Britain’s courts have become a battleground between high-profile figures from around the world and the international media.

In 2006 American actress Kate Hudson successfully sued the National Enquirer for libel, relying on the fact that the U.S. publication has a British edition. In another case, a Saudi businessman successfully sued a U.S. academic over a U.S.-published book about the financing of terrorism that had sold only 23 copies in Britain.

The committee said the government should impose “additional hurdles” to litigants not based primarily in Britain.

“There is increasing evidence that in recent years investigative journalism is being deterred by the threat and cost of having to defend libel actions,” Whittingdale said. “This is a matter of serious concern to all those who believe that a free press is an essential component of a free society.”

The committee said there was no need for a law to protect the right to privacy, something that has been called for by the victims of tabloid exposes. But it advised tighter media self-regulation through the Press Complaints Commission, saying that in most cases journalists should have to notify the subjects of stories before publication.

Though Britain has no formal privacy law, it is a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights guaranteeing the right to respect for privacy and family life. Celebrities have increasingly used this clause to fight media exposes.

The committee has also called for a new law to guarantee the age-old right to report the goings-on of Parliament. That came under fire in October, when the oil-trading company Trafigura obtained a legal injunction that barred reporting of a parliamentary question asked about its role in dumping toxic waste in West Africa. The injunction sparked outrage from the media and was quickly overturned.

“The free and fair reporting of proceedings in Parliament is a cornerstone of our democracy” and must be put “beyond doubt,” Whittingdale said.

The government is not obliged to follow the committee’s recommendations. But Justice Secretary Jack Straw pledged reform in November, saying libel laws had become “unbalanced.”

February 24, 2010: 8:51 am

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