The British cardiologist Dr Peter Wilmshurst was reported in 2007 to have made remarks critical of a clinical trial involving a medical device made by NMT Medical. He is now being sued for libel.
The case is complex and I have not mastered the detail. I have, however, grasped one essential fact. Dr Wilmshurst’s comments were made in the United States. His words were reported on a US medical website, Heartwire (www.theheart.org). NMT Medical is an American company. But Wilmshurst is not being sued in America, where the right to freedom of expression is robustly enshrined in the constitution. Instead he is being taken to court in England, where the libel laws allow foreign individuals and corporations much freer rein.
And it is to this country’s discredit and the detriment of free discussion of science that the laws are so lax.
I have written several posts on libel reform in the past eighteen months, focusing on the case brought by the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) against the science writer Simon Singh. The BCA sought to use England’s easy legal means to silence a critic, rather than to engage him directly on the key scientific issue: the BCA’s astonishing claims to be able to treat childhood ailments such as asthma by manipulation of the spine.
Only Singh’s courageous resolve, and his deep pockets, allowed him to stand his ground, and eventually win the day (though he is still embroiled in legal arguments to recover his costs). Many others — including scientific journals — cave in. Few have the financial muscle to take on large organisations at the libel game in England and Wales. Wilmshurst’s stance is an act of bravery, particularly given the recent intensification of the legal action being taken against him.
On the upside, the Singh vs BCA case highlighted the parlous state of libel law in this country and it helped to accelerate the movement for libel reform.
This week is the first anniversary of the report Free Speech is Not for Sale, which highlighted the oppressive nature of English libel law (and is an excellent and very readable starting point for those wishing to inform themselves of the case for reform). In short, the law is extremely hostile to writers, while being unreasonably friendly towards powerful corporations and individuals who want to silence critics.
The English libel law is particularly dangerous for bloggers, who are generally not backed by publishers, and who can end up being sued in London regardless of where the blog was posted. The internet allows bloggers to reach a global audience, but it also allows the High Court in London to have a global reach.
You can read more about the peculiar and grossly unfair nature of English libel law at the website of the Libel Reform Campaign. You will see that the campaign is not calling for the removal of libel law, but for a libel law that is fair and which would allow writers a reasonable opportunity to express their opinion and then defend it.
The good news is that the British Government has made a commitment to draft a bill that will reform libel, but it is essential that bloggers and their readers send a strong signal to politicians so that they follow through on this promise. You can do this by joining me and over 50,000 others who have already signed the libel reform petition at http://www.libelreform.org/sign
Remember, you can sign the petition whatever your nationality and wherever you live. Indeed, signatories from overseas remind British politicians that the English libel law is out of step with the rest of the free world.
If you have already signed the petition, then please encourage friends, family and colleagues to sign up. Moreover, if you have your own blog, you can join hundreds of other bloggers by posting this blog on your own site. There is a real chance that bloggers could help change the most censorious libel law in the democratic world.
We must speak out to defend free speech. Please sign the petition for libel reform at