A cross-party trio of influential MPs has urged the government to implement radical reforms of Britain's much-criticised libel laws, including the "international scandal" of libel tourism, which allows wealthy foreigners to sue in the English courts for material published abroad.
Their initiative is the first salvo in series of impending inquiries aimed at scrutinising the laws of defamation, which have been widely attacked as a limitation on free speech.
In a House of Commons debate on Wednesday, the MPs, Labour's Dennis MacShane, the Conservatives' Michael Gove and the Liberal Democrats' Norman Lamb, won some concessions from the government.
The justice minister, Bridget Prentice, said she would consider the introduction into statute law of the relatively recent court-made rules on qualified privilege – the so-called Reynolds principles – which give media organisations a public interest defence when they make serious allegations against an individual.
She also announced a public consultation would be held in the new year on defamation and the internet – one of the most contentious and unresolved issues in libel law that can threaten bloggers who make links to disputed articles.
The abolition of criminal libel would be considered, as well as the "disproportionate cost of defamation proceedings" and the possibility of a small claims court for claimants.
The debate foreshadows two further inquiries. Next year the culture, media and sport committee will conduct full hearings on the libel laws and this week the free speech groups Index on Censorship and English Pen announced their own investigation with a public conference in the spring.
The debate was secured by MacShane, who launched a trenchant attack on lawyers and courts for "conspiring to shut down the cold light of independent thinking and writing about some of the richest and most powerful people in the world are up to".
Speaking in Westminster Hall he went on: "The practice of libel tourism as it is known – the willingness of British courts to allow wealthy foreigners who do not live here to attack publications that have no connection with Britain – is now an international scandal. It shames Britain and makes a mockery of the idea that Britain is a protector of core democratic freedoms. Libel tourism sounds innocuous, but underneath the banal phrase is a major assault on freedom of information which in today's complex world is more necessary than ever if evil, such as the jihad ideology that led to the Mumbai massacres, is not to flourish, and if those who traffic arms, blood diamonds, drugs and money to support Islamist extremist organisations that hide behind charitable status are not to be exposed."
He singled out the proposal in the US Congress to prevent claimants in the UK pursuing American writers for fines over books on open sale in the US.
He said: "The case arises from the Kafkaesque position of the writer Rachel Ehrenfeld, whose book, Funding Evil, examined the flow of money towards extremist organisations that preach the ideology of hate associated with Wahhabism and other democracy-denying aspects of fundamentalist Islamic ideology," MacShane said. "It is not exactly a secret that a great deal of the money that has financed fundamentalist extremist organisations that support jihad has come from Saudi Arabia."
"Ehrenfeld's book, published in America, not Britain, named a Saudi billionaire called Khalid bin Mahfouz. Although the book was published in the United States, and was not on sale in any British bookshop, he found lawyers to sue in Britain. A British judge imposed a fine and costs on Ehrenfeld, and said that her book should be destroyed, even though she was not in the court. No American court would have entertained such overt censorship.
"There is no freedom of expression in Saudi Arabia, so it is the duty of others to expose what is happening. With the help of British libel lawyers, Mahfouz has launched 33 suits against those who are investigating this important area of public concern. Cambridge University Press was obliged to pulp its book Alms for Jihad, written by Robert Collins and J Millard Burr, rather than face a libel action in British courts, which seem at the moment to side with those who finance extremism rather than those who seek to curb it.
"What is happening when Cambridge University Press, one of the flowers of British publishing for centuries, has to pulp a book because British courts will not uphold freedom of expression?" MacShane said the British courts had become a "Soviet-style organ of censorship".
Norman Lamb said he was concerned about how the libel laws act as a constraint on investigative reporting and referred to the case of the British Iraqi billionaire Nadhmi Auchi.
He said: "He is a British citizen – an Iraqi exile – and he is reported to be a multibillionaire. He was convicted in France in 2003 of fraud in a trial involving the oil company Elf. Importantly, he continues to assert his innocence of the charges – there was a conviction, but he is pursuing routes of appeal against it. He was barred from entering the United States in 2005.
"My interest in the matter is in his connections to Tony Rezco, who was convicted of fraud, money laundering and bribe-related charges in Illinois, and who is currently in prison pending sentencing. We understand that sentencing has been delayed, and it has been suggested that he should talk to federal prosecutors, especially about allegations against Illinois governor [Rod] Blagojevich, which are being investigated.
"There is political interest in the US because of the connections between Rezko and President-elect Obama. I make no allegation at all relating to the latter.
"There have been reports that a company related to Mr Auchi registered a loan of $3.5m to Tony Rezko on 23 May 2005. That and other alleged connections are obviously of great interest to investigative journalists and others. More to the point, it is legitimate to investigate such a matter, given that Auchi is a prominent British citizen with political connections in this country and overseas. As I said, it is not appropriate to go into more detail, but it is alleged that Mr Auchi and his lawyers, Carter-Ruck, have been making strenuous efforts to close down public debate. Of course, it is absolutely legitimate for any citizen to demand accurate and rigorous investigation and reporting. The question is whether UK libel laws have the disproportionate effect of discouraging legitimate reporting. Many believe that they do."