UK: Queen Announces new Media Bill

A new Defamation Bill in England and Wales will offer greater freedom of speech, said Queen Elizabeth in the annual Queen’s Speech to parliament delivered on Wednesday. The new bill could end libel tourism, a practice where defendants sue media organizations in the UK because of the UK courts expansive concept of jurisdiction and its pro-defendant laws.

A draft of the bill was published in March 2011. The bill states that claimants will need to prove that they were seriously harmed before they can sue for defamation, and that a clause on “responsible publication on matters of public interest” can protect the media from undue censorship.

In their response to the bill in February, the UK government stated that “we are firmly committed to reform of the law on defamation and the protection of free speech. The right to speak freely and debate issues without fear of censure is a vital cornerstone of a democratic society.”

The response emphasizes the importance of having “a fair balance” between the right to protection for those who are defamed, and protection of the freedom of speech and expression from unjustified censorship.

The Ministry of Justice stated that the new bill will also safeguard against suppression of “robust scientific and academic debate” by libel proceedings.

The UK is well known for its tough libel laws that put all of the burden of proof on the defendants. Media regularly loses 95 percent of libel cases because of the onerous burdens. The UK has become a popular spot for Hollywood celebrities, oligarchs and crime figures to punish media through lawsuits often involving news that is published locally in local languages. The new bill could change this by tightening the rules regarding libel suits involving people who are not UK or European Union citizens.