Alive to the prospects for libel reform

The campaign for libel reform has been grinding away for several years now but there was still a buzz of expectation as we gathered in Committee Room 10 in the House of Commons last Wednesday evening. By 6 pm the room was packed. All seats had been taken and people parked themselves on window sills or stood in expectant clusters at both doors to the room.

Packed Committee Room 10

This is what democracy looks like

Chaired by Evan Harris, the meeting was an opportunity to hear from people and organisations who have had their freedom of expression curtailed due to the easy threats that powerful vested interests can fashion from our current libel laws. More importantly it was a chance to take stock at an important juncture in the campaign and galvanise ourselves for the final push.

Acting on manifesto commitments for libel reform made in the run-up to last year’s general election, the coalition government has brought forward a draft defamation bill which has in the past six months been scrutinised by a Parliamentary select committee of MPs. In the report published on 19th October the committee reviewed the oral and written evidence presented during its deliberations and made recommendations for improvements to the bill before it is finally presented to parliament.

At the meeting speaker after speaker stood up to explain the inhibition, fear and, in some cases, personal torment they had suffered from libel suits or even from the threat of one. Each spoke briefly, but with urgency and purpose. The audience paid keen attention, asked questions and raised further points. This was democracy at its best. We heard from Richard Dunstan of Citizens Advice, from David Marshall of Which? magazine, from Rowan Davies of Mumsnet, from Richard Allan of Facebook, Lisa Fitzgerald of AOL, Sophie Farthing of Liberty and Charmian Gooch of Global Witness. All spoke of cases where libel actions had been used to silence legitimate criticism. The present libel law over-reaches into every corner of our supposedly free society.

Libel Reform Meeting Nov11

From left: Simon Singh, Rowan Davies, Tim Appenzeller, Tracey Brown, Lord McNally

It has a huge impact on science and research. Tim Appenzeller from Nature and Victoria Lustigman from the Publishers Association both spoke of the threats that stifled their freedom to report on science and scientists (Nature is in court this week). The legal advantages given to claimants in England and Wales means that all publishers, academic journals included, regularly censor their own output for fear of the exorbitant costs of fighting a libel action.

The meeting also heard from two individuals who had shrugged off that fear and defended their right of scientific criticism in court — Simon Singh, who faced down the British Chiropractic Association (BCA), and cardiologist Dr Peter Wilsmhurst, who had to fight off a suit from medical equipment manufacturer NMT. In these cases there was a clear public interest in the criticism that was levelled protection from the harm of inappropriate medical treatment — but both men had to take enormous personal risks to stand by their words. Though both eventually won their cases, Singh pointed out that libel remains a threat. This week Vaughan Jones, a 28-year old father of three, found himself in the High Court having to defend a book review he had written on Amazon. Please read that sentence again. It may sound unbelievable but it is true and shows how out of kilter the current legislation is with common sense.

The draft legislation goes a long way to dragging the libel law into the twenty-first century and enshrining a stronger public interest defence for authors, journalists, bloggers and fathers-of-three. But we are not there yet. Lord McNally, the Minister of State for Justice who will have a hand in preparing the legislation, warned the meeting that a final push is needed to make sure that the bill is included in the Queen’s speech next Spring, so that it will be put before parliament and hopefully find its way into the statute book.

Give or take the odd partisan jibe, there was clearly a consensus among the three major parties that the reformed legislation will be a good thing. But Tracey Brown of Sense about Science and LibDem MP Julian Huppert both echoed McNally in urging the meeting to keep the pressure on parliament to deliver. The campaign has come a long way in the past couple of years (especially when you think back to 2009), but one more heave is needed to win the freedom from libel chill that our society deserves.

If you can, please sign and promote the petition and make a donation.

And to keep up that all important pressure, please write to your MP to tell them how important libel reform is to you.

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13 Responses to Alive to the prospects for libel reform

  1. Grant says:

    This passage from Clive James’ The Blaze of Obscurity made me wonder if someone ought to have roped him in to say a few words on the issue:

    “Terry’s caution might have been inspired by pressure from the management floor, where it has not been forgotten that I had cost the paper 10,000 pounds by using a single wrong word about a TV director. Such is the long shadow of a British libel case that I can’t say what the wrong word was even now.”

    (pg. 8, para. 2; I’d estimate >25 years had passed between the event and him writing about it.)

    • Stephen says:

      Good spot – I’ve not come across that story before.

      • Grant says:

        I’ve love to see him speak on it. I have a mind to leave a note at his website, but I’m not sure I should bother him as I would imagine he’s aware of the push for libel reform as he will, of course, follow media interests closely.

        I should add that I took the liberty to write ‘pounds’ after the ‘10,000’ as I hadn’t time, nor the inclination, to look up the HTML character attribute for the pounds symbol and test if these would be accepted as part of the comment.

        • Stephen says:

          Go for it – what do we have to lose?

          For future reference the html for the UK pound sign is £ (also known as ampersand-hash-163-semicolon — search for ‘pound’ on this page.

          Astonished it’s not included in NZ keyboards! ;-)

  2. Grant says:

    Go for it – what do we have to lose?

    Will do. It’s clivejames.com if anyone feels like peeking at what he writes these days.

    For future reference the html for the UK pound sign is £ (also known as ampersand-hash-163-semicolon — search for ‘pound’ on this page.

    Oi. Now I’m being out-done by a crystallographer. Seriously, I have a similar table in one of my reference books on web design for when I’m building user interfaces for servers. I really was too lazy at the time – although in my defence I had been up past 3am that morning tidying up a web interface (ironically) that I had to update later that day. Shoddy thing to do to a quote, though.

    Astonished it’s not included in NZ keyboards! ;-)

    Ha! :-) (For the curious, NZ had pounds in the past, moving to dollars in 1967.)

    Just discovered you can type it directly from an Apple keyboard. Sigh Wish I’d tried that at the time. Type option-#. You get: ‘£’

    Hmm.

    • Cath@VWXYNot? says:

      It’s not on Canadian keyboards either!

      • Grant says:

        Cathy, I get to reveal my ignorance. I looked up wikipedia to check wen Canadians last had pounds (1858, apparently) and learnt that Canada also once had sou. (You should plug that one into the spelling-check post of your’s.)

        [off-topic] Stephen, I hope to be in your general part of the world in June/July 2012 as on very short notice I’ve been given an opportunity to visit France. If there is a suitable opportunity that I can locate quickly (!) I’ll try extend my visit by working for a while someplace in the northern hemisphere on a suitable computational biology / bioinformatics project. (Or, possibly, in a science communication role. Anyone is most welcome to drop a note my way.)

        • Stephen says:

          Good news – if you make it as far as London, let us know and we can do beers. And maybe even food!

          • Grant says:

            I’d like that.

            I’m busy alerting the few people I can think of that there will be a computational biologist (me!) who is available to work, etc. Will let you know if anything happens. Must check out if there are interesting science or science communication conferences around that time too.

  3. Scary but true. I wrote a book review, some follow up comments and an article. I’m being sued for all three. Libel laws are not a joke, it is the process that is killing the laws and there are no clear boundaries for claimants to tell them that their cases are nonsense. Anyone can sue anyone under libel law; I mean you can resolve a complex credit card debt and assignment case in the small claims court over a few months. Libel cases take nearly a year before anyone even looks at it and in that time significant expense (£20k or more) can be run up.

    If you are brave enough, you can try to strike out a case early (summary judgement) but this has many pitfalls with exorbitant costs for defendants if they lose their applications.

    I have taken that step, along with my fellow defendants, because the case is nonsense. Anyone who visited the courts on the 10th and 11th to hear the applications has gone away shaking their heads in disbelief (all except one I suspect).

    I stand by my words but it is the case about which you cannot speak; other bloggers have already been threatened with libel for covering some of the detail. It’s that much of a contentious case. But, really, it shouldn’t be.

    • Stephen says:

      Thanks for your comment Vaughan and the very best of luck with your case. I gather you are now waiting on the judge. Hope he doesn’t take too long to see sense…

      • We’ll see… it’s not always the common sense route that enables Judge’s to rule upon the case which is why we have issued this application on technical grounds. Whichever way it is struck out, the judgement will show the case was always spurious.