Dara O'Briain: The law is gagging scientists

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The Independent Online

Defending a libel case is complex, time-consuming and extremely expensive. At the last general election, all three parties promised large-scale reform of the law – the first since 1843 – to protect public debate and freedom of expression. The Government published a Defamation Bill earlier this year, yet, nothing has changed.

I got involved in campaigning for libel reform because scientists and science writers were being sued for contributing to the evidential debates that we need them to have; Simon Singh writing on chiropractors' claims to treat childhood illnesses, Ben Goldacre about vitamin tablets promoted as a cure for Aids, the cardiologist Peter Wilmshurst discussing concerns about a heart device. The Government promised reforms would protect people like them. But winning a case can still cost three years of your life and £1.5m. Such costs have reduced the law to a high-stakes game of poker.

The libel reform Bill the Government is working on doesn't go far enough in protecting scientists, from being sued. The only "public-interest" defence is the Reynolds defence, unsuitable for scientific debate, consumer groups and in particular, those who publish on the internet. It simply doesn't work for organisations like Mumsnet, Which? or patient groups.

Libel can still be used to chill public debate and as reputation management by huge corporations.

The Libel Reform Campaign's calls are supported by consumer groups including Citizens Advice and Which?, by human rights NGOs and newspapers.

While the libel laws are complicated, the issues aren't: do we want a society where people don't speak out, or one where free and open discussion is possible? We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to improve our libel laws; it is in all our interests that this is done properly.

The Libel Reform Campaign is a coalition of three charities, Sense About Science, Index on Censorship and English PEN, with support from 60,000 individuals. libelreform.org