Regular readers of this blog will be probably be aware of the ongoing campaign to reform the libel laws of England and Wales. These laws have pernicious effects in many aspects of public life — including science and medicine. They place a dangerous constriction on the freedom of scientists and medics to engage in robust debate on matters of public interest. The cases of Simon Singh and Ben Goldacre — both of whom challenged dubious practices in healthcare — are well documented. True afficionados will also be aware of my minor but close brush with libel law a couple of years ago.
The reform campaign has been extremely successful to date. It attracted widespread support, leading all three major political parties to commit to reform in their election manifestos last year. In March the coalition government published its draft legislation and initiated a period of consultation which has just ended. Science bloggers affected by the libel laws wrote to the Parliamentary Committee that is considering the draft Defamation Bill to — in the best scientific tradition — provide evidence of the detrimental effects of the current law (you can read the PDF for yourself).
On Monday 13th June the committee met to hear oral submissions detailing the scientific and medical perspective on libel law, not just from Singh and Goldacre, but also from Fiona Godlee and Philip Campbell, editors-in-chief of the British Medical Journal and Nature respectively. You can watch the session yourself, starting at about 17:39 in this video (MS Silverlight plugin required). I recommend it — especially if you’re not familiar with the various shades of our libel law and their impacts on science — it’s a good way to get up to speed.
The committee will now consider the various submissions and prepare a report which will, we hope, influence the final form of the Defamation Bill that is due to be published in October.
In the meantime, the campaign must go on, in order to keep the issue in the public eye and in the minds of those working on the bill in the Ministry of Justice.
To do that requires the time and effort of many people — and of course some cash to allow the Libel Reform Campaign to keep banging away on this important issue. So there’s a new appeal (further details here).
If you can spare a few quid, there’s a very good chance that your money will help to make the UK a better place for scientists and doctors to debate freely the contentious aspects of their work with the people who matter — the public.