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When's the 2016 exam? Wednesday 8th June, am.

Sunday, 19 April 2015

LIBEL LAW Sky's the limit as Scientology wins 2nd UK battle

IN A NUTSHELL: The Church of Scientology has successfully used libel law, reformed in England, Scotland and Wales but not Northern Ireland, to intimidate Sky, who opted to abandon a broadcast of a film critical of the 'church' rather than face expensive legal proceedings. They don't have the technical ability to separate the signal to ensure the film wouldn't be broadcast in Northern Ireland, so the 2013 libel reforms, designed to stop 'libel tourism' and abuses of super-injunctions by the likes of Trafigura, seem to have been rendered null.Another good example of why we need to look beyond the formal regulators to laws as well.

In its goal of preventing a broadcast of Going Clear in the UK, the church has an unlikely ally in Northern Ireland’s libel laws. The 2013 Defamation Act set out a new defence for public-interest journalism on the British mainland: that the plaintiff has to show “serious harm” has been done to it. 

However, the act has not been made law in Northern Ireland, and Sky Atlantic – which has the UK rights to broadcast the film – cannot cut off the province from its satellite transmissions for this single show.

Thanks to the messy way in which 'UK' law is handled in the post-devolution era, the failure of Northern Ireland to pass an equivalent of the 2013 Defamation Act (meant to tackle 'libel tourism') looks like undermining the act.

Having already successfully pressured UK publishers to abandon plans to publish a book allegedly exposing abusive practices within the 'church' (a status denied it in Germany where it's legally a cult not a religion), now a documentary film based in the film faces the same fate.

Broadcast in the US, Sky Atlantic have cancelled a planned screening due to the likelihood of facing an expensive libel suit. They can't control their signal to the extent of separating the signal to Northern Ireland so effectively have lost the protection of the 2013 Act.

The sheer cost of legal defences ensures that well-funded businesses and other organisations are often able to censor the media. Local newspapers and the press generally, struggling for survival as circulation and ad revenue simultaneously collapse, frequently cave to the threat of lawsuits they can ill afford to defend regardless of how strong or weak the case is. The Guardian has shown exceptional determination to stand up to such bullying, but the ultimate success of their legal cases against Trafigura and the UK government (seeking to block release of Prince Charles' possibly unconstitutional 'spider' letters) puts the organisation at risk of bankruptcy.

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