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