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Journalists want to bring the public the truth... but they need help to do it and it’s vital that Northern Ireland’s defamation law is changed

1 61 19
18.09.2021

This is a column about Northern Ireland’s libel law. At this point you may be tempted to stop reading, but please don’t because that’s what some very powerful people would want.

On Tuesday, MLAs spent less than three hours debating whether to reform defamation law to better protect free speech — the first time that the Assembly has debated such legislation since 1998. On one level, that is understandable; like pensions, root canals, or death there are some things in life which we don’t like to think about until it is unavoidable.

But this is profoundly important not just to me as a journalist but to you as a reader. By suppressing important journalistic investigations, our law ultimately oppresses the public for it is the public who are denied access to information crucial to their role as active citizens in a democracy.

First, some history. The early years of this century saw growing consensus that British libel laws overly restricted free speech. They didn’t just suppress stories of corruption, but had potentially deadly consequences. Cardiologist Peter Wilmshurst personally lost tens of thousands of pounds after the US company profiting from a medical device which he feared was unsafe repeatedly sued him for libel. Dr Wilmshurst, who came to Belfast seven years ago to back libel reform, said that other doctors had been bullied into silence before he was vindicated, and the company went bust.

In London, cross-party consensus emerged that the law should be reformed to strengthen free speech, particularly for public interest journalism and for academics or scientists publishing peer-reviewed statements.

However, as that legislation — which would become the Defamation Act 2013 — was going through Westminster nine years ago, the DUP secretly vetoed it from covering Northern Ireland. Before the DUP erected that Irish Sea libel border, the Executive did not even discuss the decision.

Since then, it has been more difficult for journalism in the public interest or honest scientific research to be defended in Northern Ireland’s courts.

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At the time, leading lawyer and libel reform campaigner Lord Lester said that he could think of no reason for Stormont’s decision other than........

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