Blow to freedom of speech as key libel reform the Defamation Bill is blocked

Ministers to water down Defamation Bill, leaving big companies free to gag critics

The Government is to block plans to reform Britain’s “chilling” libel laws and to prevent large companies from silencing their critics with the threat of being sued.

The attempt by ministers to water down the Defamation Bill when it returns to the House of Commons tomorrow was condemned by academics, scientists and libel reformers. They warned it would allow big companies to continue to “hound” their critics with the threat of crippling libel fees and cement Britain’s reputation as the defamation capital of the world.

Their reaction came after ministers announced last night that they would seek to overturn a cross-party consensus in the House of Lords that companies should have to show financial damage before they can sue a journalist, academic or blogger. They are also seeking to block proposals that would prevent private companies which provide public services paid for by the taxpayer from suing.

The changes will mean that, while a prison run directly by the Government can be criticised without fear of defamation, a prison run by a private contractor such as G4S cannot.

The Conservative move is being backed by the Liberal Democrats despite the fact the party specifically supported the reforms in its manifesto. The amendment will replace a similar one tabled by the Conservative MP and libel barrister Sir Edward Garnier last week, which also met with anger from reformers.

Tonight Simon Singh, the science writer who led the campaign to reform Britain’s defamation laws after he was sued for criticising the “bogus treatments” offered by some alternative medicine providers, said he was deeply disappointed by the Government’s stance.

He pointed out that, if successful, the Government amendment would mean people like him would still have no protection to make similar statements. He was sued by the British Chiropractic Association, which is registered as a company.

“My own case is not atypical,” he said. “Lots of cases which people think are unfair and unreasonable have involved large companies suing individuals and corporations.

“The only clause in the Bill that would have helped me would have been if the British Chiropractic Association had had to demonstrate financial loss, because that would have been impossible for them. Corporations have huge influence on society and that’s why we need to tip the balance in favour of free speech.

“All we’re looking for is a moderate barrier and for the Conservatives to tear it out at this stage is appalling. For the Liberal Democrats to do it is even worse as they are going back on a manifesto commitment.”

Campaigners also expressed concern that private companies providing public services could potentially be able to use taxpayers’ money to sue their critics – even though public bodies cannot.

In 2011 the Government’s welfare-to-work contractor Atos successfully closed an internet forum run by the pressure group Carer Watch, after comments were posted criticising its state-funded testing of whether disability claimants are fit for work.

Index on Censorship said that Atos’s lawyers sent a legal threat to myfreeforum.org which hosted the site which – fearing an expensive libel action – pulled the plug.

Kirsty Hughes, chief executive of Index on Censorship, said: “At present we have an absurd situation where local councils and government departments cannot sue citizens, yet the companies who win outsourcing contracts are free to censor people who criticise their performance.

“The Defamation Bill had a sensible clause to correct this anomaly so why are Conservative MPs seeking to maintain the inequitable status quo?”

Labour’s shadow Justice Secretary Sadiq Khan said it would oppose the Government’s plans. “It’s outrageous that at this late stage the Government wants to water down the Defamation Bill,” he said. “Labour will oppose attempts that would mean big institutions could continue to use their might to intimidate scientists and academics. And we’re calling on Liberal Democrats to honour their manifesto commitment and support us in protecting free speech.”

Jo Glanville, the director of English PEN, which represents writers, said it was vital the corporations demonstrate some tangible loss before being able to sue. “Companies do not have feelings, yet wealthy corporations routinely use the libel laws to silence any criticism, however slight,” she said. “It is reasonable to ask companies to show financial loss before they sue. It is bizarre that the Government may not countenance even this modest restraint on corporations.”

A Liberal Democrat spokesman said the party would be instructing their MPs to vote with the Government. “Unfortunately we are in a Coalition and this was one of those areas where we could not get our Conservative colleagues to agree with us,” he said.

The Department of Justice insisted that, even as amended, the Bill would address the “chilling effect” on freedom of expression caused by threats of libel action, whilst “ensuring people can continue to protect their reputation when they are genuinely defamed.”

Arts and Entertainment
books
Voices
Caustic she may be, but Joan Rivers is a feminist hero, whether she likes it or not
voicesShe's an inspiration, whether she likes it or not, says Ellen E Jones
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Sport
Diego Costa
footballEverton 3 Chelsea 6: Diego Costa double has manager purring
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Life and Style
3D printed bump keys can access almost any lock
techSoftware needs photo of lock and not much more
Arts and Entertainment
The 'three chords and the truth gal' performing at the Cornbury Music Festival, Oxford, earlier this summer
music... so how did she become country music's hottest new star?
Life and Style
The spy mistress-general: A lecturer in nutritional therapy in her modern life, Heather Rosa favours a Byzantine look topped off with a squid and a schooner
fashionEurope's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln
News
Dr Alice Roberts in front of a
peopleAlice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
News
i100Steve Carell selling chicken, Tina Fey selling saving accounts and Steve Colbert selling, um...
Arts and Entertainment
Unsettling perspective: Iraq gave Turner a subject and a voice (stock photo)
booksBrian Turner's new book goes back to the bloody battles he fought in Iraq
News
The Digicub app, for young fans
advertisingNSPCC 'extremely concerned'
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Some of the key words and phrases to remember
booksA user's guide to weasel words
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior Data Scientist (Data Mining, RSPSS, R, AI, CPLEX, SQL)

£60000 - £70000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Senior Data Sc...

Law Costs

Highly Attractive Salary: Austen Lloyd: BRISTOL - This is a very unusual law c...

Junior VB.NET Application Developer (ASP.NET, SQL, Graduate)

£28000 - £30000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Junior VB.NET ...

C# .NET Web Developer (ASP.NET, JavaScript, jQuery, XML, XLST)

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# .NET Web De...

Day In a Page

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

Europe's biggest steampunk convention

Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor
She's dark, sarcastic, and bashes life in Nowheresville ... so how did Kacey Musgraves become country music's hottest new star?

Kacey Musgraves: Nashville's hottest new star

The singer has two Grammys for her first album under her belt and her celebrity fans include Willie Nelson, Ryan Adams and Katy Perry
American soldier-poet Brian Turner reveals the enduring turmoil that inspired his memoir

Soldier-poet Brian Turner on his new memoir

James Kidd meets the prize-winning writer, whose new memoir takes him back to the bloody battles he fought in Iraq
Aston Villa vs Hull match preview: Villa were not surprised that Ron Vlaar was a World Cup star

Villa were not surprised that Vlaar was a World Cup star

Andi Weimann reveals just how good his Dutch teammate really is
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef ekes out his holiday in Italy with divine, simple salads

Bill Granger's simple Italian salads

Our chef presents his own version of Italian dishes, taking in the flavours and produce that inspired him while he was in the country
The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

If supporters begin to close bank accounts, switch broadband suppliers or shun satellite sales, their voices will be heard. It’s time for revolution