United Nations attacks UK libel law

'Libel tourism' discouraging reporting on public interest matters, claims Committee

The United Nations has expressed concern that UK defamation law is discouraging critical media reporting on matters of serious public interest, including through the “phenomenon of ‘libel tourism'”. A Human Rights Committee report suggests the introduction a ‘public figure’ defence and the imposition of limits on the ability of claimants to recover costs.


The relevant paragraph of the Report by the UN Human Rights Committee states:


“The Committee is concerned that the State party’s practical application of the law of libel has served to discourage critical media reporting on matters of serious public interest, adversely affecting the ability of scholars and journalists to publish their work, including through the phenomenon known as “libel tourism.” The advent of the internet and the international distribution of foreign media also create the danger that a State party’s unduly restrictive libel law will affect freedom of expression worldwide on matters of valid public interest.”


It makes recommendations as to possible changes in the law, including that a ‘public figure’ defence be established, which would require claimants to prove malice on the part of defendants:


“The State party should re-examine its technical doctrines of libel law, and consider the utility of a so-called “public figure” exception, requiring proof by the plaintiff of actual malice in order to go forward on actions concerning reporting on public officials and prominent public figures, as well as limiting the requirement that defendants reimburse a plaintiff’s lawyers fees and costs regardless of scale, including Conditional Fee Agreements and so-called “success fees”, especially insofar as these may have forced defendant publications to settle without airing valid defences. The ability to resolve cases through enhanced pleading requirements (e.g., requiring a plaintiff to make some preliminary showing of falsity and absence of ordinary journalistic standards) might also be considered.”


Among a wide variety of other matters discussed, the Committee’s Report also criticises the use of the Official Secrets Act to stifle public debate, and the vague nature of the offence of “encouragement of terrorism” under the Terrorism Act 2006. It welcomes the abolition of the common law offence of blasphemy.


To view the full text of the Report, please click on the pdf icon below.