Thirty-one authors from Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland have called on the Northern Ireland Executive to introduce libel reform, warning that ‘Northern Ireland may become a new forum for libel bullies.’
The libel laws of England and Wales were reformed earlier this year as a reult of the Libel Reform Campaign, led by English PEN with Index on Censorship and Sense About Science. The Westminster parliament passed the Defamation Act 2013 with cross-party support.
However, the Stormont Executive has so far made no plans to extend the provisions to Northern Ireland. In an open letter to First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuiness, the group of 31 authors, playwrights and poets say that this omission means ‘the people of Northern Ireland will enjoy fewer free speech protections than their fellow citizens in England and Wales’.
The authors also express concern for the development of literature in Northern Ireland. They write:
As writers, we are particularly concerned about the impact of the unreformed libel laws on the freedom to write: biographers, historians, journalists and even novelists will remain vulnerable to libel actions on trivial and vexatious grounds. The mere threat of a libel action is also enough to discourage publishers from touching controversial subjects.
Comment: The impact of the libel law on literature
The libel issue is a very real concern for publishers. In a 2011 survey carried out by the Publishers Association, a third of publishers said they shy away from controversial topics because of the libel laws, and all have had to spend time and of money altering their books as a result of legal advice. Authors such as Jake Arnott, Amanda Craig and Francis King have all received libel threats and legal action because of works of fiction. (In the Daily Telegraph, John Preston discusses the ‘Murky World of Literary Libel‘ at greater length.)
The libel law damages literature, directly and indirectly. As PEN Trustee Kamila Shamsie put it in a speech to parliament,
But the chilling effect of the libel laws go beyond self-censorship – publishers must spend huge amounts of money fighting legal cases; the money spent on lawyers means less money available for the actual books. This doesn’t mean less money for the big authors who publishers are desperate to hang on to – it’s the newer voices, the quieter voices, the experimental and already-marginalised voices, who find themselves shut out. In the case of smaller publishing houses there is no money for legal cases; they can be wiped out by a single accusation, or else choose to take the most conservative possible approach to publishing, minimising all risk, to keep the shadow of libel from their door. The risk-minimising attitude of the publishing industry is a danger to freedom of expression.
Following the Defamation Act 2013, the libel law in England & Wales is about to be updated. It is essential that these crucial free speech provisions are extended to Northern Ireland too.