Libel and the public interest
As the quote from a report by English PEN & Index on Censorship maintains, in England defamation law remains one of the key obstacles to freedom of the press as it has the capacity to constrain public debate and ‘chill’ freedom of speech. It is particularly relevant to the focus of this book as it relates to one of the key functions of journalism, namely to scrutinise power and ensure that representative democracy functions according to its central tenets. Yet libel law in England has been, and continues to be, generally the preserve of the rich and powerful, often to protect them from public scrutiny and so to hold them to account. The purpose of this chapter then is to explore defamation as a legal concept which places great pressure on freedom of speech and freedom of expression and which impacts on the ability of journalism to perform one of its primary public functions. The chapter will proceed by exploring the notion of a right to reputation which underpins defamation law. From this I will go on to focus on defamation in the English context and explore some of the key concepts and judgements relating to defamation. It will also be necessary for me to explore the impact of the Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA) on libel law and the English approach to libel which is in severe need of signiﬁcant
reform. Finally I will brieﬂy examine the U.S. system in order to emphasise the distinction between English and United States defamation law.