Authors make libel reform plea

Sir Salman Rushdie Sir Salman Rushdie is among the authors who have put their names to the letter

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Writers including Sir Salman Rushdie and Stephen Fry have co-signed a letter urging the UK's major political parties not to abandon libel reforms.

A new Defamation Bill, which has been hailed by campaigners for supporting free speech, is close to becoming law.

But the bill is now at risk following the addition of amendments that seek to include press regulation measures.

The amendments have been added by Labour peer Lord Puttnam following the Leveson report into press standards.

The authors' open letter said it was "an historic moment for free speech".

Other signatories include Sir David Hare, Julian Barnes, Claire Tomalin, Michael Frayn, Howard Jacobson and Will Self.

The letter, co-ordinated by free speech lobby group English Pen, said the bill was "not a suitable vehicle" for the press regulation reforms.

"It is therefore entirely inappropriate, and even reckless, for libel reform to be sacrificed to the current political stalemate," it reads.

"The bill offers an opportunity for reform that we cannot afford to miss."

Changes to the bill include a requirement for claimants to show that they have suffered "serious harm", a new defence for publication "on matters of public interest" and increased protection for operators of websites hosting user-generated content.

Leveson row

In the House of Lords, the film-maker Lord Puttnam made amendments to include a system for a new commission to guarantee the independence of any new press regulator.

His modifications were added to the bill after slow progress in deciding how to implement the recommendations made in Lord Justice Leveson's report into the culture, practice and ethics of the press.

The government is unhappy with the prospect of Lord Puttnam's reforms being enshrined in law and circumventing its negotiations with the media industry.

A Downing Street spokesperson told The Guardian that the government was "strongly behind the objectives of the original defamation bill" but "does not support the Puttnam amendments and is clear the Puttnam amendments will not make it onto statute".

A Labour spokesperson said the party was committed to "modernising our outdated defamation laws".

"It would be an outrage if the government prevented Parliament from having its say given how much work has gone into proposals that give our defamation laws a much-need updating," its statement said.

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Justice said: "The Defamation Bill has now passed to the Commons for further consideration and is currently awaiting an appropriate date for this to take place."

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