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Kenneth Clarke, pictured above, submitted a draft libel reform bill to the UK government this week. (Credit: Conservatives.com)

A draft libel reform bill was proposed to the UK government this week, Journalism.co.uk reported.

Journalism.co.uk disclosed that it “has pledged its support to the Libel Reform Campaign.”  The draft law was proposed by Justice Secretary Kenneth ClarkeAccording to the Daily Mirror, Clarke called the bill a “step in the struggle to get the right balance between freedom of speech and protection of reputation.”

As Journalism.co.uk explains, the draft bill also addresses libel tourism.  The UK is known as a libel tourism destination because of its plaintiff-friendly laws.   As a result, sometimes plaintiffs with no relation to the UK will file libel suits there in hopes of having a favorable ruling.

However, the draft bill instructs that courts can’t hear or rule on a libel charge “unless it is satisfied that, of all the places in which the statement complained of has been published, England and Wales is clearly the most appropriate jurisdiction in which to bring an action.”

Another part of the draft bill calls for a “single publication rule.” That rule would make it so “action would not be able to be brought in relation to publication of the same material by the same publisher after a one year limitation period had passed.”

In a statement on its website, the Libel Reform Campaign stated that it “welcomes” the draft bill, but “calls upon Parliament to go further in key areas.” Some measures the campaign called for include “a stronger public interest defence, an end to the ability of corporations to sue in libel,” and “more protection for web-hosts and internet service providers from liability for the words of others.”

See the draft bill here.

According to the bill, some other proposed changes include creating the defense of truth (instead of justification) and requiring a statement to lead to “substantial harm” for it to be defamatory. Under the current UK law, libel is “actionable without proof of actual damage,” according to the bill.

The bill also “introduces a new defence of responsible publication on a matter of public interest,” but notes that it “does not attempt to define what is meant by ‘the public interest.'”

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The New Statesman called the draft law “a good thing” and described it as a step forward to libel law. But, “that is not to say that the draft bill could not be improved; but it is to say that it is misconceived and illiberal to dismiss the bill completely.”

The  Guardian’s Roy Greenslade noted that proposed changes also include “a simplification of court processes, thus reducing the cost for defendants.”

StinkyJournalism is writing to the Libel Reform Campaign and Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke  for comment and will update with any response.

Read more about the bill on Journalism.co.uk’s website here and on the UK Justice Department’s website here.

iMediaEthics wrote in December when the UK Supreme Court revised its “fair comment” defense to “honest comment,” a move which was seen as reflective of the Internet’s effect on libel laws.  In December, Sense about Science and five media advocacy groups created a libel law guide for bloggers with the purpose of helping bloggers and online commenters deal with libel threats.

In August, the SPEECH Act was signed into U.S. law, which makes it so foreign libel judgments that conflict with U.S. law won’t be upheld in the U.S.

UPDATE: 3/22/2011 9:59 AM EST: The Libel Reform Campaign’s Mike Harris responded to iMediaEthics’ e-mail inquiry. Outside of the three specific recommendations the campaign suggested tp be incorporated into the draft bill (see here), Harris commented that the Libel Reform Campaign is “concerned that the public interest defence may not be strong enough – but confident that Parliament will be able to scrutinise the bill properly to deliver lasting reform.”

We also asked what the bill’s timeline will be.  Harris responded “May 2012 – that’s when we expect we final bill to be tabled in the House of Commons (or potentially Lords) for its second reading.”

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