Leading article: Our libel laws have become a threat to freedom of speech

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The Independent Online

Britain is the global champion when it comes to libel litigation.

That is not a title to be proud of. Our exalted position is a consequence of some extraordinarily skewed libel laws. Anyone can be sued in a British court for anything published in any country, provided the defendant can show they have a "reputation" in the UK to be damaged. This has helped to turn London into a hub of libel tourism. It is also threatening to undermine free speech.

People and businesses have a right to use the civil law to protect their reputations from unwarranted and malicious attack. But these laws have been grossly abused in recent years. There has been a string of cases of journalists and scientists being effectively bullied by corporate interests with deep pockets.

A science writer was dragged through the courts by the British Chiropractic Association after questioning the efficiency of the medical treatment. A consultant cardiologist is being sued by an American company, NMT Medical, for raising concerns about some of its research. And one of the country's leading plastic surgery consultants is facing legal action for voicing reservation about a cream that purports to increase a woman's bust size.

The situation has got so bad that several US states have felt the need to pass laws protecting American citizens from English libel judgments. That our illiberal laws are having such repercussions overseas ought to be a source of shame.

The good news is that reform appears to be coming down the track. Yesterday, the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, promised a draft defamation bill by the spring that will make it harder for powerful corporations and rich individuals to use the British courts to silence criticism. He proposes a statutory defence for those speaking out in the public interest and a clarification of the laws around fair comment and justification. In order to deter "trivial" actions, he wants to raise the threshold of personal or financial harm that litigants must demonstrate. Mr Clegg also wants to address the cost of proceedings. That is important. Such is the cost of contesting defamation actions that writers and publishers can be forced to concede because they cannot afford to defend themselves. Ideally, Britain would move towards a US-style legal bias towards free speech.

The Liberal Democrats have had a wretched few months. The U-turn on the deficit and tuition fees have sapped the party's support. One opinion poll this week showed them on just 7 per cent. Mr Clegg, though, is playing a long game. His intention is to show by the next election that the Liberal Democrats are capable of taking the difficult decisions of office and can never again be characterised as simply a party of opposition. He also wants to demonstrate that coalitions can deliver strong, united government.

It is a reasonable strategy and much shrewder than many of the Liberal Democrats' critics give him credit for. But in the immediate term, Mr Clegg needs to do more to demonstrate that the actions of this Coalition are reflecting Liberal Democrat values. In libel reform, a cause championed by the Liberal Democrats long before either of the other two political parties took it up, he has an opportunity. Mr Clegg can combine a landmark Liberal Democrat victory with a triumph for free speech.