I was banging on last week about how scientists should use words rather than guns during public engagement. Words are safer — and often more effective.
But they are not completely safe. In fact, they can sometimes be rather dangerous, especially when used without due care and attention in England and Wales, where the libel laws take a keen interest in the words of any unsuspecting author. At the end of the long arm of the law here is a cold hand that places a legal chill on our freedom to criticise individuals or companies — even when offering an opinion grounded in fact. Our libel law is unbalanced: it puts too much power in the hands of those who can afford expensive lawyers. And it reaches well beyond our national borders, potentially affecting anyone whose writing appears within them.
The constricting effect of the law is felt even within the scientific community, especially in the area of public health. Its consequences may sometimes seem absurd, but the recent libel suit brought by the British Chiropractic Association against science writer Simon Singh and the ongoing pursuit through the courts of British cardiologist Dr Peter Wilmshurst by medical company NMT have highlighted the very real dangers of our current legislation.
I was surprised to experience the law’s cooling touch myself back in 2009, after publishing a blogpost on Nature Network. The post was written in good faith but in complete ignorance of the legislation and was taken down on the advice of Nature’s nervous libel lawyers. Please don’t ask me what I wrote — I’m afraid I can’t tell you.
The libel laws in this country have a deadening effect on discourse in many other areas of public interest — banking, human rights, consumer rights — and affect anyone in the business of publishing. These days that includes anyone with a Facebook page, a Twitter account or a blog. It probably includes you.
But pressure is now building for a change, thanks in no small part to the Libel Reform Campaign, a combined effort by Index on Censorship, English Pen, and Sense about Science. In the run-up to the UK general election last year there was all-party support for a change in the law. Next week, thanks to initial prompting by Lord Lester, the Government is expected to publish draft legislation as a basis for wide consultation; a final bill should then be prepared and enacted in 2012 — we hope.
But the libel reform campaign is not taking anything for granted and, in a nicely calculated attempt to maintain the initiative, has published a short pamphlet (pdf) that outlines the short-comings of existing legislation and sets out the provisions a reformed defamation bill should contain. It is well worth reading.
Lord Willis speaking
Yesterday supporters of the campaign gathered in Committee Room 5 in the Houses of Parliament for the launch of this important document. The meeting, chaired by Dr Evan Harris, heard brief submissions from representatives of many different organisations — Nature, the British Medical Journal, Facebook, Which, Mumsnet, Justice and Amnesty International among others. It was sobering to hear condensed into half an hour so many examples of the nefarious impact of the current libel law, but heartening at the same time to witness the democratic resolve to seize this opportunity to get improved legislation onto the statute book.
Though there was a strong sense of a shared mission at the meeting, several speakers, including Lord Willis (pictured above), warned that there would be opposition, not least from libel lawyers fearful of being out of pocket as a result of reforms that, in the interests of free speech, would more reasonably restrict the ability to claim defamation on behalf of wealthy clients. In the New Statesman, David Allen Green cautioned against complacency:
“The Libel Reform Campaign has worked hard for over a year to nudge the government into publishing the draft bill. They are to be congratulated for getting possible reform this far. However, more general participation in the debate following publication of the draft bill will help determine what will happen next. The need for libel reform has not gone away, and the campaign for libel reform needs active and engaged support now more than ever.”
Wise words. If you are a scientist and think scientific issues should be debated freely in the public domain, I urge you to take an interest in libel reform. Even if your work is unlikely to rub up against powerful vested interests and you think you are not at risk, remember that you are also a citizen and the stifling impact of libel could well be bad for your health.