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

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

Recruitment Genius: Sales Consultant - Solar Energy - OTE £50,000

£15000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Fantastic opportunities are ava...

Recruitment Genius: Compute Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Compute Engineer is required to join a globa...

Ashdown Group: PHP Web Developer / Website Coordinator (PHP, JavaScript)

£25000 - £28000 per annum + 25 days holidays & pension: Ashdown Group: PHP Web...

Recruitment Genius: Estates Projects & Resources Manager

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Based in London, Manchester, Br...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Errors & Omissions: moderate, iconic royals are a shoe-in for a pedantic kicking

Guy Keleny
 

Letter from the Whitehall Editor: Cameron is running scared from the “empty chair”

Oliver Wright
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

Growing mussels

Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

Diana Krall interview

The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

Pinstriped for action

A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

Michael Calvin's Last Word

How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us