Journalists welcome 'serious harm' threshold proposed in new Scottish defamation Bill

A new defamation Bill before the Scottish Parliament will improve the clarity of the laws for journalists, MSPs have heard.

The Defamation and Malicious Publications (Scotland) Bill will, if passed, bring in a serious harm threshold which will have to be cleared before a defamation action can be raised.

Luke McCullough, a senior policy adviser at BBC Scotland, said that this would improve the landscape for journalists who would potentially scrap a story that has merit but they believe may lead to costly legal action.

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Speaking before the Justice Committee at Holyrood, McCullough said: “The serious harm threshold is the major change that, to an extent… helps to bat off some of the more frivolous attempts at investigative journalism.”

McCullough also said that time and financial pressures on the media industry could mean journalists do not pursue stories that are in the public interest for fear of becoming the target of litigation.

He told the committee: “You see pressures of time, pressures of money, journalists in newsrooms where they are the only journalist and if it gets just too hard, you’re going to do the thing that is easy, rather than the thing that is right.”

John McLellan, the director of the Scottish Newspaper Society and former editor of the Scotsman, said the introduction of a threshold meant newsrooms would have extra confidence in their initial rebuttal of accusations of defamation.

He added: “It strengthens the ground on which you would say ‘no, sorry, we have no case to answer’ and therefore provides a strengthening of that weeding out process that we’ve heard before where letters arrive which are effectively a fishing exercise to see what will come back.

“In strengthening the grounds on which you can reject a bid, then it means there are fewer cases that are likely to be taken further and therefore reduces the exposure to further cost – I think that’s very important.”

Despite the changes the Bill would bring, McLellan said that there would be no way to stop a person or organisation who had the financial backing to continue a case, but would provide “a more effective filter”.

Along with the threshold, the Bill, if passed, will reduce the length of time allowed before an action is brought from three years to one year, as well as introducing a complete defence for secondary publishers of defamatory information.

Picture: Andrew Cowan/Scottish Parliament

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