Cowengate and seditious libel

Staute of John Wilkes, via WikipediaI wonder whether anyone has suggested that Conor Casby’s caricatures of Cowen constitute a seditious libel? It’s not that fanciful a question: the common law crime still exists, and has been used against milder criticism. But the mere fact that the question can be asked in this context demonstrates just how ridiculous the crime actually is. It’s on the way out in Australia. Now, thankfully, its days may now finally be numbered, both in Ireland and in the UK too!

As for Ireland, the Minister for Justice suggested this week that we could see the enactment of the Defamation Bill, 2006 before the summer. Since it was introduced in July 2006, the Bill has suffered more delays than Ryanair, to say nothing of the long journey to reach that point which began with the work of the Law Reform Commission in 1991 (Consultation Paper and Report on the Civil Law of Defamation; Consultation Paper and Report on the Crime of Libel). The tortuous passage of this Bill through the Oireachtas has taken so long that I won’t hold my breath, but the fact that it is likely to recommence its less-than-steady progress is welcome news nonetheless. One of the many great benefits of this enactment will be the abolition of the common law crime of seditious libel. Section 34 of the Bill as introduced provides:

The common law offences of criminal libel, seditious libel and obscene libel are abolished.

Section 35 provides for the enactment of a new, much narrower and much more focussed, offence of publication of gravely harmful statements to replace these abolished common law offence. [Update: as Daithí points out in the comments below, this section has been removed from the Bill]. In the United Kingdom, Evan Harris MP has been working to achieve the same end. Writing at Index on Censorship yesterday, he explained his efforts:

Seditious libel law is a travesty of justice

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The UK government’s retention of this archaic legislation only serves to justify oppression in other countries, writes Evan Harris

In 1763, journalist John Wilkes and 49 of his publishers were arrested for seditious libel. Their crime was to have written and disseminated an editorial criticising the state, in the person of King George III.

It would be unthinkable for the state to use such power today — but nearly 250 years on, the laws of sedition still sit in this country’s statute books. … It is not acceptable that 21st-century Britain hasn’t got rid of these laws yet. That’s why I, along with English PEN, Index on Censorship, Liberty, Article 19, and many others, have come together to campaign for their abolition. The Coroners and Justice Bill is currently making its tortuous way through Parliament, and it is a large beast of a bill which is a struggle to scrutinise. But such a portmanteau bill is the opportunity I have been looking for to table amendments which would repeal these ridiculous bits of legislation. …

… Writers, journalists, activists, and citizens worldwide are looking to Britain to lead the way. After all, how can we criticise other nations, when we haven’t got our own house in order? John Wilkes would be turning in his grave. As comedian and activist Mark Thomas has said, ‘I hope MPs will weed out the ancient, twisted law of seditious libel so I can get on with the job of describing them accurately.’

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