If we want a society where free and open debate is possible, we need to fight for libel reform

The comedian and presenter says that despite vague promises of reform, the government is failing to protect those of us who believe in free speech

Share

On Wednesday 17th October, I joined the Libel Reform Campaign to meet the Leader of the Opposition Ed Miliband, to impress upon him the need for a strong public interest defence in libel. He promised me he would work with government to tackle this.

I got involved in this campaign because scientists and science writers were being sued for contributing the very same evidential debates that we need them to have; Simon Singh writing on chiropractics’ claims to treat childhood illnesses, Ben Goldacre about vitamin tablets being promoted as a cure for Aids, the cardiologist Peter Wilmshurst discussing concerns about a heart device.

Poker

Defending a libel case is complex and time-consuming and extremely expensive. Winning a case can still cost three years of your life and £1.5 million (as in the science journal Nature’s recent case). These high costs have reduced the law to a high stakes game of poker which favours those who can force you to go all in.

The only “Public Interest” defence was known as the Reynolds defence and consists of a 10 point retrospective checklist more suited to print journalists (it came from the Albert Reynolds v Sunday Times libel trial). It is pretty much unworkable for scientific debate, consumer groups and in particular, those who publish on the internet. It simply doesn’t work for Mumsnet, to Which?, to patient groups and online forums: it doesn’t apply to the way public debates happen now.

At the general election two years ago, all three parties promised to reform the law, the first large scale reform since 1843 and the Government published a Defamation Bill earlier this year.

The Government promised its reforms would protect people like Simon, Ben and Peter. But nothing has changed.

The Open Society

The public interest provision in the Bill, rather than the proper reform the government promised, is just a codified version of the Reynolds defence. It is not a proper public interest defence. And for those of us who joined the campaign because of Simon, or Ben, or Peter the simple truth is, it wouldn't have changed anything for them. They would have faced the same hurdles and the same costs; the same temptation to simply settle and withdraw from the argument. 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 science publishers including Nature and BMJ, by consumer groups including Citizens Advice and Which?, by human rights NGOs and by newspapers – by people across society who want to talk about evidence.

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 right.

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 and more than 100 civic society organisations. www.libelreform.org

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Errors & Omissions: how to spell BBQ and other linguistic irregularities

Guy Keleny
 

South Africa's race problem is less between black and white than between poor blacks and immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa

John Carlin
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own