Removing libel juries would be dangerous, warns newspaper industry

Senior journalists including Guardian editor criticise government plan to end use of juries in most libel trials

Senior figures from the newspaper industry on Wednesday warned politicians against plans to eradicate juries in libel trials as part of sweeping reforms to defamation law in the UK.

Alan Rusbridger, the editor-in-chief of Guardian News & Media, which publishes, joined Philip Johnston, the assistant editor of the Daily Telegraph, and Alastair Brett, the former legal director of the Times, in telling a committee of MPs and Lords it would be dangerous to do away with jury trials of libel cases.

The government's draft bill, unveiled in March, signalled an end to the use of juries in all but exceptional circumstances. The bill removes the presumption in favour of a jury trial as part of measures to cut costs and speed up court cases.

Rusbridger told a joint Commons and Lords committee that the plan should make newspaper editors "a bit anxious", pointing to a libel action brought by the Police Federation against the Guardian in February 1997, which the newspaper won "entirely thanks to the jury, rather than the judge".

He said: "The litmus test is who's telling the truth? That's when you want a jury trial."

Johnston, formerly the Telegraph's home affairs editor, pointed out that the most recent jury trial in a libel case was in July 2009, between media tycoon Richard Desmond and the author Tom Bower. He added: "If jury trials could be done more cheaply then I think we would want them."

Brett, who left the News International title at the end of last year, said: "Where the key issue is who's telling truth then you may want jury – particularly if it's a high-profile person like a politician."

The wide-ranging libel reforms could be made law by next year. The draft bill, which was published by justice secretary Ken Clarke, aims to bring an end to the so-called "libel tourism" by celebrities and other high-profile figures bringing libel cases in this country.

Media industry figures tentatively welcomed the libel tourism proposals, but Brett argued for the addition of a clause which would make the claimant have to prove that they suffered "substantial damage" in this country.

Brett said the new public interest defence, which would be introduced for defendants in libel cases, risks bringing the bill "perilously close to setting up a series of new hurdles which the press are going to have to get over" to win a defamation case.

The Libel Reform Campaign welcomed the draft bill when it was announced in March, but warned the government needed to go further to protect publishers from big corporations that sue for libel.

Rusbridger said the issue had been "dodged" in the bill and was a "big missing element". Brett added companies should have to prove some financial damage – or the potential of financial damage – before they are allowed to launch a libel case.

"Companies are not like individuals – they don't have the horror of going through a long libel action," he said.

All three industry figures argued in favour of a requirement that the claimant should have to prove an attempt to resolve the libel complaint out of court before launching legal action.

• To contact the MediaGuardian news desk email or phone 020 3353 3857. For all other inquiries please call the main Guardian switchboard on 020 3353 2000. If you are writing a comment for publication, please mark clearly "for publication".

• To get the latest media news to your desktop or mobile, follow MediaGuardian on Twitter and Facebook.


Josh Halliday

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Alan Rusbridger: The long, slow road to libel reform
Read the 2011 Anthony Sampson lecture in full

Alan Rusbridger

10, May, 2011 @5:30 PM

Article image
Guardian 'could not go it alone' with WikiLeaks, admits editor
Alan Rusbridger calls UK 'libel capital of the world' and says the law is 'limping along behind the digital revolution'

James Robinson

10, May, 2011 @7:37 PM

Mr Justice Eady replaced as senior libel judge

Mr Justice Tugendhat to take charge of Queen's bench jury and non-jury lists, which hear most defamation and privacy cases. By James Robinson

James Robinson

14, Sep, 2010 @3:19 PM

Article image
Leveson report: editors seeking legal advice on third-party complaints

Alan Rusbridger says five clauses of report will only be accepted by counterparts subject to 'being scrutinised by lawyers'. By Dan Sabbagh

Dan Sabbagh

11, Dec, 2012 @3:15 PM

Article image
Free speech in parliament is precious, says lord chief justice

Lord chief justice declares principle is 'fundamental' and warns fellow judges on 'super-injuctions'

Alan Travis

20, Oct, 2009 @8:56 PM

Article image
Leveson inquiry: Murdoch editors warn of 'chilling effect' of state regulation
Sunday Times editor defends use of blagging by reporters but Alan Rusbridger says 'libel problem' must be addressed

Lisa O'Carroll

18, Jan, 2012 @1:15 AM

Article image
Evgeny Lebedev warns of political backlash against abuse of press freedom
Russian publisher of Independent titles says British newspapers risk being placed in an 'institutional straitjacket'. By John Plunkett

John Plunkett

10, May, 2011 @5:34 PM

How super-injunctions are used to gag investigative reporting
The Guardian has been served with at least 12 notices of injunctions that could not be reported so far this year

James Robinson

13, Oct, 2009 @9:18 PM

Article image
Simon Singh libel case dropped

British Chiropractic Association ends legal action against science writer for comments in Guardian article

Sarah Boseley, health editor

15, Apr, 2010 @5:22 PM

Article image
Libel proposals will have 'chilling effect' on newspaper investigations
Government plans to cut cost of taking libel action against publishers or broadcasters risk vexatious claims, say campaigners. By Lisa O'Carroll

Lisa O'Carroll

16, Sep, 2013 @12:37 PM