As the Defamation Bill begins its Committee stage in the Lords, Dianne Hayter explains two Labour amendments relating to private companies
When it comes to press coverage of real events, plenty of attention has been spent of late on what constitutes a breach of privacy; with a lot less thought given to coverage of false stories. This seems strange – that we appear to worry more about truthful stories that get into the media rather than those that are built on lies. Defamation is all about incorrect stories which damage a person’s reputation.
Despite the need to protect individuals from press intrusion based on false allegations or scurrilous gossip, the law has often been used by companies to protect their brand. The simple fact is that most people have found it hard to fund such action or to risk the costs that might be incurred should they lose the case. The government’s Defamation Bill, which today starts its Committee stage in the Lords, should help rebalance this flaw in the law. It will do so by raising the bar for allowing an action for defamation, and by reducing the potential cost by removing the presumption in favour of jury trials thereby allowing resolution to happen more quickly and cheaply.
The Bill however, will leave companies subject to the same standard as individuals and able to threaten those who criticise it, without having to show any loss of income. In many cases, such criticism will be absolutely accurate; but individuals, NGOs, journalists or most newspapers will not be able to risk the costs of defending a claim when faced with an army of well-funded corporate lawyers.
So, while accepting reputations should be protected, we are seeking to amend the Bill to require companies to illustrate substantial financial loss arising from the incorrect allegations. Many of the most high profile, controversial cases of defamation have been brought by corporations and would in all likelihood have failed under this new clause.
Another issue that we will highlight today relates to expanding the scope of the law that stops public authorities from having the right to sue for defamation.
Due to the commissioning and outsourcing, private companies are increasingly carrying out services traditionally delivered by public bodies. While companies such as ATOS, Winterbourne, G4S, Serco, Clearel and others are often providing such services to the most vulnerable in our country, they are not held to account by councillors or MPs, and it will often happen that users’ criticisms of the services being provided (as has happened with some of the aforementioned companies) will appear in the media.
Given that these companies are using public money to provide public services, they should surely not be protected from scrutiny and press comment by being able to threaten action for defamation. Therefore, our amendment would, in respect of their public service provision, put them in the same place as local and national government.
Baroness Dianne Hayter is a frontbench Labour Peer in the House of Lords
Published 17th December 2012