Scientists and academics are to be given extra protection from bullying corporations that use Britain's libel laws to suppress legitimate criticism and debate, the Government has indicated.
Ministers are to look at amending the Defamation Bill, which is currently being debated in the House of Lords, after strident criticism that their plans do not go far enough.
Scientists have warned that under current proposals there nothing to stop companies and the rich and powerful “silencing criticism” even if it is in the public interest.
They point to a string of recent cases where experts have been threatened with hugely expensive legal actions for raising legitimate concerns about medical products and allegedly unscrupulous practices by companies.
In one case, Citizens Advice was threatened with libel action after it exposed a number of household retailers for sending legal letters demanding hundreds of pounds in costs and “compensation” from children accused of shoplifting. In another case a cardiologist was sued by a medical devices company after he highlighted “life threatening” problems with one of their products at a medical conference.
The Government had said it would change the law to introduce a new simple “public interest” defence as part of its Defamation Bill. But when the Bill was published critics pointed out that far from protecting scientists and academics the new bill made defending an action on ground of public interest so complicated that it would have a “chilling effect” on public debate.
Now the Government minister in charge of the legislation has indicated that he is prepared to rethink his plans.
Speaking in the House of Lords Lord McNally said he understood concerns that its public interest defence was “too restrictive”.
“I have heard enough hearsay evidence about the willingness (of businesses) to fire off lawyers’ letters and rack up costs or implied costs,” he said.
“One of my driving motivations has been to try to get something that would deal with the undoubted problems that scientists, academics and others face.
“We are trying to provide legislation that gives genuine protection to the scientific community. If there are improvements that give that protection, we will certainly look at them.”
He added: “It is admitted that the clause (on public interest) that we have put forward will need further work. I hope that this work will avoid the kind of back-street bullies that he described.”
The lawyer Lord Lester, whose original Bill was the basis of the Government’s legislation, said he would welcome the proposal to simplify the public interest defence.
“It is the NGO, the whistleblower, the citizen critic or the website host who tends to take the line of least resistance by censoring information and opinions which the public need to know in order to avoid the costly and uncertain litigation,” he said.
“I suggest that what is needed is a clause that sets out the principles of protecting honest and reasonable publication in the public interest, which deals with mistakes and respects editorial discretion.”
Dr Síle Lane, Director of Campaigns at Sense About Science said: “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 are pleased the Minister said the Government will look again at the public interest defence. They need to bite the bullet and insert a new effective defence into the Bill.”