Gilson warns 'twin track' law could mean 'libel tourism'

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The Belfast Telegraph editor, Mike Gilson, warned the Finance Committee a "twin-track" approach to publishing laws, could lead to "libel tourism", on 26 March 2014.

Mr Gilson was briefing the committee on the impact the Defamation Act 2013 could have if it was implemented in Northern Ireland.

At present, he said, because the law differs with England and Wales, people could bring cases to Northern Ireland because "we're quicker to threaten with lawyers and quicker to hand out settlements than other parts of the UK".

He described the Defamation Act as "a common sense way of knocking out vexatious claims and still protecting someone who suffered serious damage".

Mr Gilson added the non-implementation of the act, could have a "chilling effect" on journalism and damage creative industries locally.

He said it could mean a publisher, faced with the choice of operating in England or Northern Ireland "may see the defamation law is a bit iffy, payments are high, it takes too much time to deal with complaints and decide, why get involved there?"

The DUP's Peter Weir challenged the idea that the absence of the Defamation Act could lead to "libel tourism".

"Has there been any evidence of an increased caseload that would indicate libel tourism?" he asked.

Mr Gilson replied: "I'd have to say no, but in the life-cycle of a law it may be something we have to look at in the future".

Mr Weir asked whether Mr Gilson, in supporting an honest opinion defence, was pursuing personal interest as a journalist.

"If something was written that was libellous, surely people should have protection, is that not a good thing?" he asked.

Mr Gilson said it should not be "punitive".

"What you should look at is the damage to reputation. Looking at the level of damages it's much, much higher here," he said.

"There are cases where I know we can defend it, but it would cost too much, so we pay them a small amount of money... otherwise we could rack up costs of thousands of pounds a day."

Committee chairman Daithi McKay asked whether he would be in favour of adopting the English and Welsh law "wholesale".

Mr Gilson said there was "a lot we could adopt here" and "I don't think we need to go further".

The UUP's Mike Nesbitt also briefed the committee on his defamation law consultation.

Mr Nesbitt said more than 90% of respondents backed changing the law.

While he believed there was public support for the move, he was concerned "it's being kicked down the road, politically".

Peter Weir asked whether he knew the identities of the respondents, saying "what's to say this isn't just three people in a room who feel passionate about it? It's not difficult to set up multiple email addresses".

Mr Nesbitt said meetings with the judiciary and stakeholders were "key".

The committee was also briefed by officials from the Institute of Public Health on efforts to reduce public sector absenteeism.

Dr Elizabeth Mitchell said "poor mental health was by some margin the biggest cause of long term absenteeism".

She said pilot programmes for early intervention could prevent issues around stress becoming long-standing problems and talked about the role of cognitive therapies as an alternative to anti-depressant medication.

In terms of physical wellbeing, Ms Mitchell said "our workforce has the lowest level of cycling and walking in Europe", with the most recent figures showing 37% of Northern Ireland adults are overweight, while 25% are obese.

With regard to people with disabilities, she suggested "with the aid of modern communication technology" distance working could be beneficial.

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