Alan Rusbridger: the libel law draft lacks relevance to online media and interactivity

Alan Rusbridger: the libel law draft lacks relevance to online media and interactivity

Originally written for the Association of British Science Writers

Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger spoke at City University on Tuesday (10 May) regarding ‘the long, slow road to libel reform’.

Speaking to a full room, Rusbridger outlined how British libel laws ended up in their current form and gave some examples of his libel battles as the newspaper’s editor.

As the talk progressed it became clear that the divide between press freedom and media regulation is a delicate balancing act.

Rusbridger praised scientists and doctors saying that “their stubborn refusal to give in to the frankly bullying use of libel laws has achieved considerable progress”.

He also praised them for supporting the new draft bill. He commended the clauses protecting publication on matters of public interest, honest opinion (which would have helped Simon Singh) and the substantial harms test.
Nonetheless, Rusbridger said that he believed the new bill did not go far enough, a point which was also raised during questions by former Liberal Democrat MP Evan Harris, co-founder of the Libel Reform Campaign. Rusbridger commented “The honest opinion section still needs some polishing … I would like to see more movement on the burden of proof”.

Rusbridger also touched upon the role of new media, noting that the recent breaking of privacy injunctions on Twitter is an important issue, and that the draft reform bill does not contain “anything that speaks to 21st century web publication and user interactivity online”. The need for this was highlighted recently in the BBC documentary See You in Court which detailed a libel case based on comments posted on a message board by a member of the public.

The PCC’s recent ruling against The Daily Telegraph Daily for undercover recording of ministers and recent revelations of phone hacking by News of the World have brought the practicality of self-regulation into question. Rusbridger commented: “14 years after everyone told us that the PCC had reformed standards in the press and that the age of bad behaviour was over we can see better what a hollow claim that was”.

The overall message from the evening was that the existing libel and media laws are untenable and reform is needed.