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Lord Lester of Herne Hill: My Lords, before the Minister does so, as my noble friend Lord Mar and Kellie is not here, perhaps I may mention that I believe it is not correct to say that his point is dealt with in Clause 18(2). That provision applies Clause 7 to Scotland. My noble friend's point was that that is unnecessary because the problem that Clause 7 deals with does not arise north of the Border. Can that point be reconsidered?
Lord Inglewood: I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Lester. In fact the noble Lord intervened just before my reinforcements arrived explaining that I had misled the House on the matter. I must crave your Lordships' forgiveness. The noble Lord, Lord Lester, is right and I was wrong.
I should like to turn away from the Bill as drafted and, as I was saying, deal with a number of other points that were raised in the debate. It was suggested that there should be a remedy for people who have problems with what has been published about them, although it falls short of being defamatory. That point was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Finsberg. Although I can understand that people may sometimes be less than enthusiastic about receiving uninvited publicity, it is always necessary to remember the importance of our
The noble Lord also referred to parliamentary privilege and the case of defamation proceedings brought by Members of the other place. The purpose of introducing the Bill was to bring forward a number of law reform proposals on detailed drafting, structure and clarity of presentation, upon which the Government had already consulted widely before we published the Bill last July.
It was at almost exactly the same time that the two defamation actions involving the Members of the other place came before the High Court and drew attention to the problem mentioned by the noble Lord. The issues which it raises are indeed of great importance and, I would add, of great difficulty. I know that serious concern has been expressed about them and is shared by many people, especially in the other place. We acknowledge the gravity of the problem and desire to find a solution to it. But it must be said that finding the right solution cannot be the most straightforward of tasks.
However, while the Bill is in Parliament it may provide an opportunity to address the problem. Of course, we welcome that. Naturally, we would consider any amendments brought forward, and their implications, most carefully.
My penultimate remarks will be addressed to a subject mentioned by several speakers; namely, the so-called "Sullivan defence". Our view is that there is no place for such a defence in our defamation law. We endorse the reasoning and conclusion reached by the Neill Committee when it considered the suggestion. Media representatives proposed to the committee that there should be a defence similar to that applied in the United States which confers privilege in respect of statements defamatory of public figures unless the publication is activated by malice.
The committee took the view that standards of care and accuracy in the press were not such as to give confidence that a Sullivan defence would be treated responsibly. It would mean, in effect, that newspapers could publish more or less what they liked, provided that they were honest, if their subjects happened to fall within the definition of "public figure". We agree that the media are adequately protected by the defences of justification and fair comment at present. It is salutary that those defences are available only if the facts are substantially correct. What matters is the subject matter of the publication and how it is treated rather than who happens to be the subject of the allegations.
The noble Lord, Lord Lester, asked for clarification that the Bill is not intended in any way to restrict the traditional role of the judiciary in deciding upon the balance to be struck and maintained between the right to a good reputation and the right to free expression. I am happy to assure the noble Lord that there is no intention to restrict that traditional role. If the noble Lord apprehends that there is some provision in the Bill which could be taken to suggest otherwise, we should certainly wish to look again at that provision and do something about it.
Finally, before concluding, I wish to address the point raised by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale. The Government have taken note of the point raised by the noble and learned Lord and will be pleased to consider it further at Committee stage.
In conclusion, I am grateful for the warm support which the Bill has received and for the contributions made by your Lordships in this Second Reading debate. It is now with pleasure and confidence that I reiterate the Motion standing in the name of my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor.
Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I was about to suggest that. The noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, said that her noble friend will write to me. I was about to say that so, as always, we agree. I ought to say that the Minister has done manfully well in winding up for the Government in this difficult area. The questions that I raised concerned criminal libel--Clause 20; previous convictions relating only to conclusive proof in so far as a plaintiff is concerned; and the question of allegations relating to an area distinct in the plaintiff's life from that which was sued upon. I was not going to suggest--I am sure that the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, quite understood this, which is why she assisted me--that I should be given an immediate reply. However, I believe it would be helpful generally if we had the Government's considered view on that. I take it that the Government have a considered view on these matters.
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