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Why you can't watch Scientology documentary Going Clear in the UK

Free speech fears as Sky pulls film from schedule

Two years ago, I spent a day with author Lawrence Wright, whose exposé of the Church of Scientology, “Going Clear”, had not been published in the UK due to the fear of the then-unreformed law of libel. Wright met parliamentarians, journalists and libel campaigners and expressed his belief that his book should be published in the UK. With reform of the law on the horizon, there was hope that the era where libel tourists made the High Court in London an international free speech pariah was nearly over.

It now seems that director Alex Gibney’s film based on Wright’s book will not be shown in the UK either. According to the Observer, Sky Atlantic has decided the risk of falling foul of the law is too great. Yet, it isn’t the law of England and Wales that is to blame this time. It’s the unreformed libel laws of Northern Ireland and Scotland that are causing concern.

For while the Defamation Act 2013 made huge improvements to the law in England and Wales, for reasons that are still not clear, neither the governments of Northern Ireland or Scotland decided to enact the law in their jurisdictions. It means the new public interest defence, the new honest comment defence (the “Simon Singh” defence), the bar on libel tourists, the hurdle to stop corporations suing individuals and the new provisions to prevent vexatious and trivial claims, do not apply in Northern Ireland or Scotland.

This has left a gaping loophole in the law. While, for instance, a victim of our libel laws such as Singh may now be safe to publish in London, if their work is read in Northern Ireland they could find themselves in court.

DUP’s 'intense hostility to libel reform

The background to this decision is still shrouded in mystery. In May 2013,  Democratic Unionist Party Assembly Member Sammy Wilson withdrew a paper on applying the Defamation Bill in Northern Ireland without either the Assembly or the Executive having a chance to see it. The finance department has refused to comment on questions from a political committee in Stormont. Sam McBride, the political correspondent of the News Letter has given his view on why reform was blocked, tweeting:

"The volume of solicitors' letters from DUP to BBC over one Spotlight episode gives a pretty clear hint as to why DUP blocked libel reform".

The DUP’s intense hostility to libel reform has made the campaign to reform the law in Northern Ireland led by English PEN and Sense About Science hard fought for. Political machinations have seen a private member’s bill by Mike Nesbitt MLA (the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party) blocked in order to hold a consultation. Months later, the consultation was nearly cancelled after the Executive decided to abolish the body that was hosting the consultation.

SNP blocks progress on free speech

Meanwhile in Scotland, the SNP-led government refused to enact the Defamation Bill and refused to subject its decision to any consultation.

The block on libel reform was announced in June just before Holyrood went on holiday preventing tough questions from opposition MSPs.

The result is a chilling effect on the free speech of people across the UK. Unfortunately, the internet doesn’t recognise either Hadrian’s Wall or the Irish Sea, so scientists exposing false claims, journalists writing hard-hitting public interest exposes of corruption or bloggers exposing wrongdoing in Manchester or Cardiff could find themselves hauled in front of courts in Belfast or Edinburgh.

The Church of Scientology has always contested key claims made in Wright's book, saying it is “one-sided”. In a statement to The Observer, the church said, “The Church of Scientology will be entitled to seek the protection of both UK and Irish libel laws in the event that any false or defamatory content in this film is broadcast within these jurisdictions.”

Without reform of the law of libel in Scotland and Northern Ireland, in practice every UK broadcaster, newspaper and blogger could be subject to the archaic, restrictive law.

Mike Harris advises the Libel Reform Campaign

Mike is the publisher of Little Atoms and the Director of 89up. He has run high profile campaigns on Belarus and Azerbaijan, works with the Don't Spy On Us campaign and documentary film company BRITDOC on the Oscar-nominated film CITIZENFOUR. He has written for The Independent, The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, The Times and Index on Censorship.

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