This week saw the first meeting of a new government taskforce set up to look at how the use of Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs) by wealthy people to stymie legitimate journalistic investigation, can be mitigated.
At the meeting with Culture Secretary Lucy Frazer were representatives from the NUJ, the Society of Editors and the Law Society of England and Wales.
Ahead of the meeting, Frazer said, “Working together with industry leaders, we will develop strong measures which enhance the freedom of the press to expose wrongdoing without fear of our justice system being abused to silence journalists.”
There’s clearly a pressing need for action.
UK Bureau Director for Reporters Without Borders Fiona O’Brien said: “SLAPPs can have a devastating impact on the journalists involved and their ability to report freely on matters of public interest, so we’re very pleased to see the establishment of a taskforce that recognises them as a serious and pressing threat.”
According to the Coalition against SLAPPS in Europe (CASE), “the number of SLAPP cases across Europe has been increasing year on year, with the highest number recorded in 2020, followed by 2021 and 2019.”
So, a UK government taskforce is a welcome step in the right direction, but will it be enough?
In a recent article for InPublishing on the state of press freedom in the UK, Jon Slattery wrote: “While reformers say it is essential judges should be able to quickly throw out SLAPP cases, some lawyers argue that SLAPPs are hard to define and a wholesale reform of the defamation law is required.
“Geoffrey Robertson KC in his new book ‘Lawfare’ argues the only way to rebalance free speech in favour of press freedom is to change the defamation laws.
“He says the changes needed include: Reverse the burden of proof and make claimants prove defamatory statements about them are untrue; presume public interest in free speech outweighs privacy; no injunctions on public interest stories; bring back juries in defamation cases; end libel tourism; televise libel trials; end corporations’ power to sue; and reform the way libel lawyers charge such huge costs which deter opponents.
“Robertson writes: “Only once in British history did members of parliament ever think to enshrine free speech in our make-believe constitution, and that was to give themselves an absolute privilege against being sued for anything said in parliament.
“If MPs were on the receiving end of those belligerent letters from libel lawyers and facing £1million costs in going to court to defend themselves, maybe there would be more urgency for reform of the libel laws.”
What we need is a UK equivalent of the US first amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
But that would require a written constitution and the UK famously does not have one of those…
You can catch James Evelegh’s regular column in the InPubWeekly newsletter, which you can register to receive here.