Northern Ireland

Libel laws: Nesbitt claims 'overwhelming support' for NI reform

Mike Nesbitt Image copyright PAcemaker
Image caption Mike Nesbitt said 90% of responses to his consultation backed changing libel laws

Ulster Unionist Party leader Mike Nesbitt has claimed overwhelming support in his bid to reform Northern Ireland's libel laws.

He said more than 90% of responses to his public consultation backed changing the law.

Former Stormont Finance Minister Sammy Wilson declined to introduce a copy of a new Westminster act to the assembly.

Mr Nesbitt's Private Member's Bill aims to bring the law in Northern Ireland into line with Westminster.

He said his public consultation had a better response than a UK-wide consultation by the Ministry of Justice before its new libel act last year.

Mr Nesbitt said: "In April 2013, the UK government passed The Defamation Act, with unusual cross-party support at Westminster, to update our statutory right to freedom of speech, balanced by the need to protect against unjustified attacks on an individual's reputation.

'A place apart'

"To my mind, this reform is essential. The libel laws are so old they pre-date the internet, which is now the primary source of information for so many of our citizens.

"Inexplicably, Sammy Wilson dismissed the idea of extending the new law to Northern Ireland, without even consulting his executive colleagues, never mind the assembly.

"The result is that Northern Ireland is currently a place apart within the United Kingdom, and not in a good way. Our people - all our people - are at a disadvantage, because of the far-reaching implications of operating laws that are different to England and Wales."

The Strangford MLA said reform of the libel laws impacted on the economy as much as on any individual libelled by a media report.

He said it would:

  • put existing media jobs at risk.
  • force media outlets to consider specific NI editions of their newspapers, programmes and websites, or not publish at all.
  • handicap efforts to establish NI as a global centre of excellence for the new creative industries.
  • hamper universities as they tried to attract the best researchers, scientists and academics.

There are also fears Northern Ireland will become a haven for "libel tourists".

'Regular threats'

Mr Nesbitt added: "This is about protecting freedom of speech in Northern Ireland.

"This is particularly important to us, because our current system of government means we do not have a second chamber, like the Lords in London, who scrutinise and revise legislation coming out of the Commons.

"Nor do we have an official opposition, a role performed to a large extent by the media, many members of whom tell me they face regular threats of legal action for defamation from a particular local political party.

"My consultation indicates only 1% of the population agrees with Sammy Wilson in thinking the laws of defamation are as good as they can be."

Simon Hamilton, who replaced Mr Wilson as finance minister, has referred the matter of the reform of libel laws to the Northern Ireland Law Commission.

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