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C4 insurer calls for UK libel law reform

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Specialist insurer Hiscox, which backed Channel 4 in its successful defence of a libel case brought by Matthew Fiddes, has called for urgent reform to the UK's libel laws.

A high-profile libel trial was due to commence today at London's High Court, but Fiddes, who claims to have been a former bodyguard to Michael Jackson, opted to drop his legal action against Channel 4 and production company Studio Lambert.

Fiddes initially alleged that Channel 4 documentary The Jacksons Are Coming, which followed members of the famous family relocating to Devon, included segments which were wholly fabricated. However, he has now retracted the claim.

The West Country native launched his legal action on a conditional fee agreement (CFA), which meant that his legal team would only get paid if they won the case.

Under the settlement, Fiddes will not receive any money to cover his costs and Channel 4 will not attempt to recover any of the estimated £1.7m it has spent defending the claim.

Hiscox, which has backed Channel 4 throughout the legal defence, welcomed the verdict but also claimed that UK libel laws must now be changed.

Ian Birdsey, media claims expert at the insurer, said that cases brought under CFA agreements "pose a dangerous risk" to media companies.

"There is no doubt that our unfair and iniquitous libel laws are restricting freedom of expression for media companies," he said.

"How is it right that it can cost millions to protect your reputation against outrageous allegations? This case should be the catalyst for long overdue libel reform.

"The exorbitant costs involved means that a lot of media companies would find it impossible to defend their reputation without huge financial support.

"Settling a scurrilous claim was never an option even with the high costs involved. We decided to support our clients to the end and we are delighted with the result.

"Without libel reform, conditional fee agreements and after-the-event insurance pose a dangerous risk and tie the hands of media companies up and down the land."

Earlier in the day, Channel 4's Julian Bellamy said that the Fiddes case illustrates the "chilling effect that exorbitant legal costs in CFA-funded libel claims can have on broadcasters' freedom of expression".

He added: "The claim was flawed from the outset and it is a damning indictment of the current libel system in the UK that the claimant has been allowed to tie up the court's valuable time and the defendant's resources for so long."

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