Why Libel Needs to be Reformed

This week is the first anniversary of the report Free Speech is Not for Sale, which highlighted the oppressive nature of English libel law. In short, the law is extremely hostile to writers, while being unreasonably friendly towards powerful corporations and individuals who want to silence critics. This is why the law needs to be changed…


The problem with the English (and Welsh) libel laws is that they are too restrictive. So, for example, if I were to call Simon Singh a man with a bogus haircut, it would be up to me to prove that it was, in fact, bogus. Otherwise I would be facing a huge bill for damages, and an even bigger one for legal fees.

A bogus haircut, allegedly
And what if I won a libel defence for revealing that PZed Myers is actually a fundamentalist Christian trolling the scientific blogosphere? Well, then I would merely be hit with the legal fees. Same with Richard Dawkins (although at least Dawkins doesn’t have to wear a fake beard).
You can see the problem – writers (professional or otherwise) are just not able to tell all. The tales I know about Richard Grant, Stephen Curry and three pints of congealed cricket-sperm are enough to chill the blood. But the English libel laws are even scarier, so even though I would like to reveal all and start a debate about the morality of how Jenny Rohn gets inspiration for her books, the chilling effect of English (and Welsh) defamation laws reduces the room to absolute zero. I can barely suggest that Dr. Gee’s “novels” are, in reality, autobiography.
The effect of the libel laws even get into science. Although I know that Mike Fowler falsifies his results every time he goes to a buffet (I think it’s the way he bangs the side of his computer), and Tom Webb fiddles his results by removing 30% of his data and then choosing the test that fits best (oh, and totally ignoring any analyses with better data), I am hesitant to write about this for fear that they’ll sue.
Yes, things are so bad that I can’t even call John Wilkins, “na├»ve”, because he’s a philosopher and that could be seen as a derogatory statement of fact (especially if Justice REDACTED were hearing the case).
So, what are we to do? Well, there is still David Allen Green – aka blogger Jack of Kent, who is a lawyer and therefore beneath contempt. And one can (I hope) also still insult imaginary characters like PhysioProf, Brian Pigeon and Cath Ennis, as they don’t really exist.
So, what do you do if you want to opine on Lou Woodley’s penchant for smoking Cuban cigars, and then serving them with ketchup on a plate of fresh oysters? At the moment, the best thing to do is to shut up. But the British government has committed itself to drafting a bill to modernise the libel laws. But as the government is run by politicians, they still need prodding to be reminded that there is a constituency out there who can vote (and if they don’t do what we want, it’ll be another 5 years of Nadine DorriesMartin Robbins). We can send them a message (and not just the one explaining why Evan Harris should never given a position at the MoD1). This is easy to do: you just need to sign the libel reform petition at http://www.libelreform.org/sign.
You don’t even have to be British (and in some cases, we’d rather you weren’t, Austin). Signatories from overseas remind British politicians that the English libel law is out of step with the rest of the free world (note: it’s OK to write this. Libel laws are unable to sue).
We must speak out to defend free speech. Please sign the petition for libel reform. Otherwise you won’t be able to read all about it.

1 He’ll appoint Ben Goldacre as a consultant, and when he asks “what does this red button do?” not only will they try it, Dr. Goldacre will also insist on replication of the study, with appropriate controls.

About rpg

Scientist, poet, gadfly
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3 Responses to Why Libel Needs to be Reformed

  1. Cath Ennis says:

    I signed the petition, therefore I am.

  2. Bob O'Hara says:

    You’re just saying that.

  3. Tom Webb says:

     Whoever told you that, has a pretty shaky grasp of my methodology. Only chucking out 30% of the data? Yeah, right, like that’s going to work!