Lib Dems’ libel reform retreat points to a wider Coalition problem

Frankly, it’s the last thing Nick Clegg needed. After losing several high profile Lib Dem supporters over the party’s botched handling of the Government’s ‘secret courts’ legislation, another core liberal reform, one promised in the 2010 manifesto, is threatened by a Coalition compromise: libel reform.

Robert Sharp of free speech campaign group English PEN wrote here at the weekend about the threat posed to the defamation bill by Conservative MP (and former libel lawyer) Sir Edward Garnier’s amendment to the Defamation Bill, striking out the clause which makes it harder for companies to sue for libel. The Independent reports:

… ministers announced [on Sunday] that they would seek to overturn a cross-party consensus in the House of Lords that companies should have to show financial damage before they can sue a journalist, academic or blogger. They are also seeking to block proposals that would prevent private companies which provide public services paid for by the taxpayer from suing.

The changes will mean that, while a prison run directly by the Government can be criticised without fear of defamation, a prison run by a private contractor such as G4S cannot.

The Conservative move is being backed by the Liberal Democrats despite the fact the party specifically supported the reforms in its manifesto. The amendment will replace a similar one tabled by the Conservative MP and libel barrister Sir Edward Garnier last week, which also met with anger from reformers.

The paper quotes a Lib Dem spokesperson saying:

“Unfortunately we are in a Coalition and this was one of those areas where we could not get our Conservative colleagues to agree with us.”

Three quick points:

1. Libel reform is not a major public issue of concern. It is, however, an issue that matters greatly to liberals: it’s not just about free speech, but about the ability of those with money to use that power effectively to silence those without.

2. I don’t know what options were open to the Lib Dems. If Labour is opposed to the amendment then the party could have joined forces to block it. That would make reneging on our manifesto promise hard to justify. [Update: Labour’s justice spokesman Sadiq Khan has, I see, confirmed Labour will vote against the Government’s amendment to its bill: “it’s crucial that we prevent large and powerful institutions using the mere threat of defamation proceedings to chill free speech. … We hope the Liberal Democrats will abide by their manifesto commitments on this issue and support Labour in defeating Conservative attempts at diluting the Bill.” As I said, this makes the Lib Dem position hard to justify: why should the party’s representatives vote against the manifesto on an issue not covered by the Coalition Agreement?] If not, then the party’s options are limited and pragmatism is a fair enough response: some reform is better than none.

3. This issue points to wider problem: the lack of mandate for legislation in the second half of the parliament. Packaged up, as the Coalition Agreement was, we all get to see how the compromises net out across all the issues of government. But when they crop up on an individual basis — as we’ve already seen with ‘secret courts’ — dissent stacks up against each and every measure. (Separate, but related, we’re seeing a likely rebellion (of both Lib Dems and Tories) on the so-called ‘planning free-for-all’ today.)

One lesson to be drawn from all this is that, should there be another Coalition of whatever hue, there needs to be a proper mid-term re-assessment built in: a Coalition 2.0. I don’t pretend such a process would be easy. But the present alternative — antagonising your own core supporters with unannounced retreats and initiatives — is hardly more appealing.

* Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.

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  • You say some reform is better than none. Well this reform, according to The Guardian, would prevent state prisons suing for libel, but allow private prisons too. If this is true, and given the increasing privatisation of state services, this represents an outcome much worse than the status quo.

    Do you really want that as a Lib Dem legacy?

  • Antagonising puts it mildly; voters may not care about this, but many members and activists will be once again furious. If this was a budgetary issue I could grudgingly accept, but as Stephen points out, our position here is hard to justify; I simply do not understand our MPs behaviour on this one.

    p.s. who else will care? Well, some journalists might, for starters, they’re a great group to antagonise.

  • John Cartmell 16th Apr '13 - 10:45am

    As a card-carrying member of the Labour Party you may think it’s safe to ignore my comments – but listen first. Margaret Thatcher went on quite a lot about Freedom. She hid it, but her freedom was the freedom of large corporations to do whatever they wanted to powerless individuals. Her freedom removed the shield that protected the ordinary person from the infinitely stronger and richer corporate bullies. A society without controls is not neutral. It favours the rich and powerful. It supports the oppressor. It backs the bully. Today’s vote isn’t a coalition problem. It is a problem at the soul of the LibDem party for the soul of the LibDem Party. Do LibDems support the idea of handing the rich and powerful a blunt weapon and saying, “Do what you like, we’re on your side”? That appears to be what your leaders are saying today…

  • Paul in Twickenham 16th Apr '13 - 10:48am

    The quote from the unnamed “Lib Dem spokesperson” is very interesting, isn’t it: “Unfortunately we are in a Coalition and this was one of those areas where we could not get our Conservative colleagues to agree with us.”

    So this implies that the Liberal Democrats had a manifesto commitment and they are unable to make it happen because they are in coalition, whereas if the arrangement had been “confidence and supply” then legislation would be considered in terms of how it coincides with party policy and in this case (as seen from the comment by Sadiq Khan) the Lib Dems could have met a manifesto commitment.

    It would be enlightening to see the relative percentage of Lib Dem manifesto commitments that would have been met by confidence and supply versus coalition.

    Has coalition turned out to be more about ego trips for the current leadsership and “bums on seats at the cabinet table” than about implementing the policies that generations of dedicated Liberal and Lib Dem activists fought so hard to implement?

  • “that they would seek to overturn a cross-party consensus in the House of Lords that companies should have to show financial damage before they can sue a journalist, academic or blogger.”

    As I said on another thred – this is not accurate. The clause says “substantial financial loss” . And given the new higher threshold for defamation (serious harm) I’m not sure why its needed. It also it puts an extra barrier in the way of some organisations but not others

  • Why would I ever again vote for a party who directly and without reason (e.g. coalition agreement compromise) act against the very document they presented to me to receive my vote?

    The Lib Dem party is free to vote with the manifesto on this, why do they not?

    Libel reform, secret courts, tuition fees, going along with the Tories’ demonisation and division of the poor, I could go on.
    And it’s not just Clegg either. You could get rid of him now, or in the future, but that would still leave the entire upper reaches of the party, and every single one of your MPs who continue go along with this.

    As an ordinary Lib Dem voter, I feel totally betrayed by you and like a fool for ignoring people telling me my vote was wasted. I now know it was wasted. When you actually came to power, you immediately betrayed the people who put you there.

    Never again.

  • Geoffrey Payne 16th Apr '13 - 12:42pm

    It should be simple really. We should ask ; is it in the Coalition agreement? If the answer is no then we should ask is it Lib Dem policy, or is it popular with the Lib Dems. If the answer is no, then tell the Tories; “I’am sorry David, my party won’t accept that. Better not to put it to the vote because we will vote against. Now what is the next item?”
    I do not support an interim agreement that we have not had the chance to vote on as a party. There is a lot to be said for the government to do less from now. Plenty of radical reforms have been pushed through and now the government will have to attend to putting right all the mistakes they have made. That is more than enough to be getting on with.

  • David Evans 16th Apr '13 - 3:06pm

    Again a craven surrender hiding behind “We’re in coalition.”

    Time to go Nick. You haven’t got the courage to be a Liberal.

  • Simon Bamonte 16th Apr '13 - 5:41pm

    David Evans: “Time to go Nick. You haven’t got the courage to be a Liberal.”

    Unfortunately, Nick won’t go. Why? Because I think most remaining LibDems don’t have the stomach or courage to do what’s right and get rid of him. Kind of like how the majority of our MPs in Parliament don’t have the courage to vote against the Tories, even on matters of fundamental differences in philosophy (secret courts, for example) or issues that were not in the coalition agreement (todays vote on the removal of the General Duty in equalities). But you’re right about courage. Either Nick does not have the courage to stand up to Cameron or, and I don’t know which is worse, he actually agrees with him.

    Rightly or wrongly, there’s a reason a large amount of the voting public (especially people who voted LD in 2010) now see LibDems and Tories as one and the same.

  • Richard – is this a vote against the manifesto? The manifesto said:
    “Protect free speech, investigative journalism and academic peerreviewed publishing through reform of the English and Welsh libel laws – including by requiring corporations to show damage and prove malice or recklessness, and by providing a robust responsible journalism defence.”

    That has three limbs:
    1) Show damage – that is covered in Clause one requiring serious harm to reputation
    2) Show malice or recklessness – not sure that’s in there
    3) Robust responsible journalism defence (sort of in there in the courts can make allowances for editorial judgement)

    But nothing about “significant financial loss”

  • Julian Tisi 17th Apr '13 - 1:47pm

    A good article, Stephen. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with “there needs to be a proper mid-term re-assessment built in: a Coalition 2.0”

    In response to Richard and others “The Lib Dem party is free to vote with the manifesto on this, why do they not?”, this is I think the nub of the problem. Clearly there has been some deal done in some back room as shown by the “Lib Dem spokesman” quoted as saying “Unfortunately we are in a Coalition and this was one of those areas where we could not get our Conservative colleagues to agree with us”.

    The good news is that we’re now pointing out where we’ve compromised rather than wholeheartedly agree with something. That wasn’t happening until recently – slowly people are starting to understand coalition and the idea that you have to make compromises. In the long run that public understanding can’t be bad for us.

    The bad news, as Stephen Tall points out, is that the compromises aren’t open as they are in a coalition agreement, with all that entails, such as antagonising your own core supporters with unannounced retreats and initiatives.

  • Simon Banks 17th Apr '13 - 3:00pm

    John Cartmell: No, we won’t ignore your comment. We get some comments by supporters of other parties that deserve to be ignored, but not yours.

    You’re quite right that there is an approach to freedom that ignores inequalities and concentrates purely on abolishing restrictions on free action. This approach was unfortunately given a dubious intellectual imprimatur by the philosopher Popper, whose command of logic was way in front of his understanding of practical politics. This approach does exist on what you could call the far right of the Liberal Democrats. It is not acceptable to most of us, or we would see the law requiring companies to provide access for wheelchair users as a restriction on the companies’ freedom and not a liberating measure for wheelchair users.

    You might well agree that Labour’s approach to freedom has been confused except for the Blairites, for whom it was an annoyance that got in the way of winning elections and getting people “on message”.

    As for g’s comment – do we really want state institutions to be able to sue people who criticise them? This issue is about the freedom of individuals and pressure groups to hold powerful institutions to account. At present the system is heavily loaded against anyone who makes legitimate criticism of a well-resourced company.

    Shame on our weak leaders. If the Tories wouldn’t agree with us, that was no reason for us to cave in.

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