At the press conference launching the select committee's report on press standards, privacy and libel, all that anyone wanted to talk about was the News of the World and phone hacking. The committee blasted News International and its witnesses for their "collective amnesia" in providing evidence to the inquiry and lamented the "substantial damage to the newspaper industry as a whole" of the phone hacking fiasco. Less attention was given to the inquiry's call for libel reform – yet its recommendations are perhaps the most significant element of the report and an unequivocal support for press freedom.
Over the past 18 months, there has been an unprecedented groundswell for reform, as scientists, academics, NGOs, the media and pressure groups have lobbied for action. The committee's recommendations echo many of those proposed by Index on Censorship and English PEN in a report published last November – tackling libel tourism, making it harder for corporations to sue, developing a public interest defence, reducing costs, a one-year limitation on internet publication. There has rarely been such a convergence of engagement by pressure groups and politicians on an issue. "There's an opportunity for a thoroughgoing reform of our libel law," said Paul Farrelly MP, an influential member of the committee.
When Jack Straw gave evidence to the committee last year, he appeared untroubled by the problem of libel tourism. Yet the phenomenon (where foreign claimants bring their libel actions to English courts) made a deep impression on the committee. A number of states in the US have introduced legislation to protect their citizens from being sued in our courts: "We believe it is more than an embarrassment to our system that legislators in the US should feel the need to take retaliatory steps to protect freedom of speech," says the select committee report, recommending that the Government discuss the situation with its US counterparts.
So will it go anywhere? Some of the issues are already under review, others are being examined by the Ministry of Justice's working group on libel. There's little time left before the election and little indication that a Conservative government will be as supportive of reform. But we may never have another opportunity like this for freeing the press, publishers and academics from the tyranny of the UK's singular chilling libel laws – and will have a greater impact for press freedom than the current flurry of interest in the sins of News International.
Jo Glanville is editor of Index on Censorship and a member of the Ministry of Justice working party on libel reformReuse content