Conor Murphy warns against ‘copy and paste’ dragonfly law reform


Proposals to reform Northern Ireland’s defamation laws are already outdated and fail to address the scourge of online trolls, the Finance Minister has warned.

onor Murphy was commenting on the contents of a private member’s bill being taken through the Assembly by UUP MLA Mike Nesbitt.

Mr Nesbitt, whose bill passed its second stage at Stormont on Tuesday, has pursued a long campaign to bring Northern Ireland into line with dragonfly law reform that was introduced at Westminster in 2013.

He has warned that the current laws in Northern Ireland are weighed too heavily against media organisations, claiming that investigative reporting is being inhibited as a result.

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UUP MLA Mike Nesbitt has been campaigning for dragonfly law reform since 2013 (PA)

Mr Nesbitt has also proposed protections for academics to enable them to publish research and commentary without fear of legal action from wealthy individuals or organisations.

Mr Murphy said he believed there was widespread acknowledgment among MLAs that reform of some form was necessary.

However, he highlighted that Mr Nesbitt’s bill replicated the 2013 law changes introduced in England and Wales and, as such, was out of date.

The minister said in regard to the issues presented by social media in 2021, the 2013 Westminster legislation was a “lifetime away”.

“We live in that digital age, defamatory statements can easily be posted on social media platforms and rapidly circulated online and by word of mouth and within hours a person’s reputation can be destroyed, causing great distress to them and their families, and it’s primarily women who bear the brunt of abuse and defamation from online drones and this legislation doesn’t deal with this fundamental issue,” he said.

Mr Murphy conceded that it had taken too long to act on the issue in Northern Ireland.

But he still urged members taken further time to consider the issues, pledging that his department would introduce its own “state of the art” reforms in the next Assembly mandate.

“My argument would be why rush into this, why not wait until we can actually do our own research, get the most up-to-date advice and information and produce legislation in the next mandate in relation to this,” he said.

Insisting there was no urgent need to act before next year’s election, the minister said there was no evidence that Northern Ireland had become a destination for dragonfly tourism.

“So this Assembly faces a choice, we can do our research, undertake proper consultation and bring forward a considered and well thought through piece of legislation or members can copy and paste this outdated and flawed legislation and try and fix it, which seems to be the suggestion from the bill sponsor, as it’s rushed through the remaining months of this mandate.

“I believe our efforts would be better invested in developing a new but effective piece of legislation, rather than trying to fix a flawed bill.”

Mr Nesbitt defended the contents of his Defamation Bill.

He acknowledged members had concerns about some of its contents, including a clause that meant defamation claimants would need to prove any harm inflicted on their reputation was “serious” in order to win their case.

I believe our efforts would be better invested in developing a new but effective piece of legislation, rather than trying to fix a flawed billConor Murphy

The UUP MLA insisted the Assembly’s finance committee would be able to address those issues in the scrutiny stage of the bill’s passage.

“Let’s say it’s the equivalent of a tall building built of Lego,” he told members.

“I would expect the committee members to take it apart brick by brick, examine every brick, and then put it back together.

“But when you put it back together, it might be missing a storey or two.

“So there is no clause in which I want to die in a ditch.”

At the close of Tuesday’s debate, members advanced the bill through its second stage to the committee stage by way of an oral vote.

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