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

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager - B2B, Corporate - City, London

£45000 - £50000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Recruitment Genius: Head of Content and PR

£35000 - £37000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are 'Changemakers in retail'...

Recruitment Genius: PHP Developer - Mid / Senior

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing digital agenc...

Recruitment Genius: E-commerce Partnerships Manager

£50000 - £100000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a newly-created partne...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Zoe Sugg, aka Zoella, with her boyfriend, fellow vlogger Alfie Deyes  

If children are obese then blame food manufacturers, not Zoella

Jane Merrick
Amos Yee arrives with his father at the State courts in Singapore on March 31  

Singapore's arrest of a 16-year-old YouTuber is all you need to know about Lee Kuan Yew's legacy

Noah Sin
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