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July 1997

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LETTERS: The dangers of resorting to libel actions


I cannot agree with David Price [Press Gazette, 11 July] when he urges journalists to break with tradition and sue their critics for libel. We all, at times, would like to get revenge on those like Aitken who try to silence journalists with libel writs. Suing those who criticise, however, is not the answer.

Mr Price claims not to comprehend why so many journalists vehemently oppose the use of libel laws. It is not merely 'a matter of individual preference', nor is it simply that journalists find themselves on the receiving end of libel writs that makes us hostile to the laws.

There are broader principles at stake. Britain's libel laws have a chilling effect on free speech and a free press. For a start, libel cases are notoriously expensive. The law is also extremely 'plaintiff friendly'.

Such is the cost of defending a libel action, many editors would rather spike a story that they believe to be true rather than run the risk of incurring massive costs in court by losing on some legal technicality. A recent study demonstrated that many regional newspapers have given up writing stories that are critical of the police for fear that a libel writ may follow.

It is surely a bad thing for journalists and for democracy that public criticism of the police is silenced in this way.

Nor is the actual truth of an allegation a guaranteed defence in the High Court. The now deceased Liberace, for example, successfully won massive damages against a paper that dared to imply that he was gay. In the last 10 years, defendants have won only 20 of the 200-odd libel cases that came before the High Court. When one remembers that most publications will settle all but the few cases that they feel they can win, this is a shocking statistic.

Journalists should not resort to using libel laws because we have an interest in defending free speech and a free press. Even if we can extract an apology and a few quid from our critics, the long-term effect of such action will be simply to encourage litigation and make the job of investigative reporting near impossible.

As someone who is currently being sued by fellow journalists, I feel very strongly about this matter. It is in our interests to agree with the free speech advocate who argued that the remedy for words that hurt and damage us is not enforced silence - it is more words.

We have the opportunity to answer our critics in kind. Let's use it.

Helen Searls, Legal Co-ordinator, LM Magazine.

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