Thursday, 6 December 2012

Criminal libel

A fellow resident of Skewen (a Skewenian?) a Mr Saul Gresham, had a letter in yesterday's Independent. He wrote:

One of the reasons that people fear the press is that in order to obtain redress for wrongdoing they need to employ expensive lawyers. If, however, libel were to become a criminal offence such that public prosecutions became the first stage of legal action, then the likelihood of casual and wanton defamation would be reduced. The civil action could follow later and would be less costly to the wronged party and consequently more likely to restrain the less reputable members of the press.

In fact, there was an offence of criminal libel on the statute book until three years ago, when it was removed by an amendment to the Coroners and Justice Bill introduced in the Lords by the Labour government. The abolition was widely welcomed by journalists and civil rights campaigners, no doubt minded of the history of its use by authoritarian governments.

However, the escapades of the press as they affected ordinary citizens since then suggest that, rather than removing the offence altogether, it would have been more prudent to amend it along the lines Mr Gresham has in mind. In any case, a more enlightened judiciary these days would not allow its oppressive use as 18th and 19th century governments got away with.

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