My Weekend Review: The Gagging of Free Speech

The coalition government is determined to do everything in its power to gag free speech through the back door.

The radical reform they are proposing could lead to vexatious cases being brought against newspapers and book publishers. Already the libel law as it stands is too broadly restringent in a free democracy. Some books published in the US are unlikely to see the light of day in the UK, simply because foreign publishers are wary of our libel laws which are almost close to ridicule in a modern and free society. We are already encumbered with so many laws that the loony liberal establishment has decreed under the guise of political correctness, which inhibit free speech as never before.

Helen Grant, the justice minister, announced last week that she was backing Lord Leveson’s recommendations for ‘costs protection’ in defamation cases to make it easier for individuals to sue large media organisations. I should have thought the opposite was needed given the amount of money that was paid recently to the so-called victims of phone-hacking and defamation; the newly formed lobby of those who benefited greatly from their legal actions, mostly well-to-do celebrities, are now cock-a-hoop trying to take their revenge at the expense of free speech.

The new reforms suggested means that people, even of modest means, who feel that they have had their privacy invaded or who believe they have been defamed could bring legal action without the burden of having to pay the entire legal costs of the proceedings should they fail to win.

Mark Stephens, a media lawyer, said: ‘This seems to be the political sop to the Hacked-Off lobby for the failure of the government to implement the Leveson recommendations. It will encourage people to bring spurious libel actions, which will have a chilling effect on free speech. Newspapers will be left diverting all their money defending a multiplicity of weak claims when they could be using precious resources investigating the likes of MPs’ expenses.’

And what will happen to investigative journalism? It is bound to curtail some of its crucial activities without which the corruption, in some segments of our society, will only augment with much greater ease and impunity. If that were to happen, the Leveson Enquiry would have contributed to the hysteria that it generated, which is now indirectly leading to a witch hunt of celebrities at the mere whiff of some sexual accusation.

The government is, as usual, groping in the dark, rushing into a variety of ill-conceived reforms in order to be seen innovatively-driven. They will be remembered in the same vein as the last disastrous Tory administration under John Major, the reverberations of which are still felt today.

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