Lord McNally (Liberal Democrat) opened the debate, outlining the purpose of the bill. He explained: ‘We need to refocus and modernise our law on defamation so that it offers effective protection, whether offline or online, for both freedom of speech and the reputation of those who have been defamed.’
He described the proposed legislation as ‘a sound, reforming bill and one that I hope can command cross-party support.’
Responding on behalf of the opposition, Lord Browne of Ladyton (Labour) confirmed his support for the bill, but identified several areas of concern.
On clause 5, which seeks to establish a framework to allow people to protect their reputations online, whilst also protecting website operators from casual threats of litigation he said: ‘We think that clause 5 is ill thought-out and incomplete. It creates a new defence for the operators of websites where a defamation action is brought against them in respect of a statement posted on their website.’
Viscount Colville of Culross (Crossbench) declared an interest as a current BBC producer/director. He spoke of the effect of current libel laws on journalism: ‘The present libel laws are costing respectable media organisations a fortune in their own lawyers’ fees and are exhausting journalistic talent in refuting these claims.’
Lord Sugar (Labour) drew attention to the need to ensure that damages awarded as a result of libel action are increased to account for the costs of funding a defamation case.
He argued against the practice of libel damages being comparable to personal injury claims: ‘These comparable damages are most probably the result of an accident whereas there is no accident involved in printing lies.’
Lord Black of Brentwood (Conservative) declared an interest as the executive director of the Telegraph Media Group. He welcomed the bill but expressed concern that it does not yet do enough to deal with libel tourism: ‘It therefore does not address the problem of media companies in an age of global media being vulnerable to being sued in different jurisdictions under different laws for the same publication.’
The debate will continue with line by line scrutiny in committee stage. Lord McNally concluded: ‘This debate had the necessary balance which takes us forward to committee.'
About the Defamation Bill
The bill was introduced in the Lords at first reading on 8 October, having completed its stages in the House of Commons.
The Defamation Bill aims to reform the law of defamation to ensure that a fair balance is struck between the right to freedom of expression and the protection of reputation. It looks to make a number of substantive changes to the law, but is not designed to be the single law on defamation.
The bill proposes to introduce a requirement for claimants to show that they have suffered serious harm before suing for defamation and a defence of 'responsible publication on matters of public interest'. It will also consider new statutory defences of truth and honest opinion to replace the common law defences of justification and fair comment.
Next stage: Committee stage
Detailed line by line examination of the separate parts (clauses and schedules) of the bill takes place during committee stage. Any member of the Lords can take part.
It usually starts no later than two weeks after the second reading and can last for one to eight days or more.
The day before committee stage starts, amendments are published in a marshalled list - in which all the amendments are placed in order. Amendments on related subjects are grouped together and a list (groupings of amendments) is published on the day.
During committee stage every clause of the bill has to be agreed to and votes on the amendments can take place. All proposed amendments can be discussed and there is no time limit, or guillotine, on discussion of amendments.