Trade bodies and associations have joined the PA's Richard Mollet in welcoming the draft Defamation Bill, with the Society of Authors general secretary Mark Le Fanu calling it a "major step forward".
The draft bill, which was published this week (15th March) now enters a period of consultation and will not come into law until next spring. It introduces a new statutory defence of responsible publication on matters of public interest, and a statutory defence of truth and of honest opinion, replacing common law defences of justification and fair/honest comment.
Publishers Association chief executive Richard Mollet this week praised the government’s action and said: "The publication of the draft Defamation Bill is extremely welcome. Our libel laws are in urgent need of reform and the government is at last taking steps to address this."
Le Fanu also backed the measures, and said: "I think it is a major and welcome step forward . . . This is an excellent first stage." He particularly praised the restyling of the fair comment defence as honest opinion, and the fact that substantial harm will now have to be shown in order for a statement to be defamatory.
English PEN campaigns manager Robert Sharp praised the changes as "a good shift", and said: "It’s a great start but we still think we would like the government to go further.
"What’s good about the things the government wants to put into law, is that it will provide so much more certainty for publishers. It will reduce the chilling effect [on what is being published]. It will expand the space for free speech, for the publishing of memoirs and investigative journalism."
The bill also introduces a single publication rule, preventing an action being brought in relation to publication of the same material by the same publisher after a one year limitation period has passed. Sharp called this "an update for the internet age" and "a positive step".
However, Sharp also called for more to be done, in particular citing the absence of any measures to make it harder for corporations to sue, and the lack of any measures to introduce a low-cost, fast-track alternative to the High Court to settle libel claims. He said: "We still really need the support of publishers, booksellers and writers to keep up the campaign momentum."