Scientists to get extra protection from libel


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.”

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Duty Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Duty Manager is required to join one of the ...

Recruitment Genius: Team Leader

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Team Leader is required to join one of the l...

Recruitment Genius: Chef

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Chef is required to join one of the largest ...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Assistant

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Customer Service Assistant is required to jo...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor