Letters: Defamation laws

Libel: burden of proof must remain on the accuser
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The Independent Online

Although I agree that our defamation laws need reform, may I put a couple of spokes in the wheel of the zealots who want to shift the burden of proof on to the plaintiff in actions brought by large corporations ("The libel laws need a massive overhaul", 24 February) ?

If your esteemed organ publishes a statement that I am a practising paedophile I will suffer enormous damage: I will probably be lynched if I leave my house; I would probably lose my job, be divorced and so forth. I am therefore as much entitled to damages from you as I would be if you came and threw bricks through my windows. Arguments about the burden of proof will not hack it, as it has been known since Aristotle that no one can prove a negative. The burden of proof must be on the accuser, as it would be if I were so accused in the criminal courts.

Similarly if I own a firm making widgets and you state falsely that my widgets cause cancer, my firm will become bankrupt and I will suffer huge financial damage. I am therefore, and should be, entitled to sue you for the damages I have suffered just as much as if you had planted dynamite in my factory. Again, the burden of proof must be on you, as no manufacturer of anything can ever conclusively prove that his products do not cause cancer.

In any reform these basic rights of mine to damages when someone causes me damage must be protected against any easy assumption that newspapers and other media can publish whatever they like without regard to the real damage they may inflict on innocent citizens. It also enforces good journalistic practice, as the threat ensures that you will not make such accusations unless you have hard evidence that will bear court scrutiny.

Peter Croft


The dangerous culture of bullying

Perhaps the most distressing aspect of the allegations Andrew Rawnsley makes about Gordon Brown's bullying is that, rather like Margaret Thatcher's domineering style of leadership during the 1980s, such behaviour at the top of society can be seen to legitimate aggressive, intolerant management in all manner of organisations.

This way of running things played a significant part in the troubles at Lehman Brothers, Royal Bank of Scotland and other financial institutions where subordinates were too afraid to question official wisdom.

Who wants to work in an organisation or live in a society run along old fashioned, Fordist, quasi-dictatorial lines? The breath of democracy needs to flow freely at all levels of British society on a daily basis, not just once every five years.

K G Banks

Maidstone, Kent

How reassuring to hear directly from our Prime Minister that he has not personally been involved in any undermining of his long-time friend Alistair Darling. But why am I reminded of his previous assurances that there was never any rift in his harmonious relationship with his previous long-term friend in politics, Tony Blair?

Malcolm Wild

North Shields, Tyne & Wear

It is said that we are fated to repeat the lessons of history. The Chancellor gives bad news to the nation. The Prime Minister is incensed. Friends of the Prime Minister unleash the "forces of hell" on to the Chancellor. I suppose we should be glad that the times are not as brutal as they were in the reign of Henry II.

Monica Finan

Formby, merseyside

The law and the end of life

As a charity which supports thousands of disabled people, including those with high support needs, we are very concerned about the potential impact of the final guidelines on assisted suicide due to be published by the Director of Public Prosecutions on Thursday (25 February).

Many disabled people are genuinely frightened about this. The law is very clear that assisting someone else to commit suicide is illegal. The final guidelines from the DPP look set to muddy the waters by implying that in some situations people will be permitted to break the law.

This will be a worrying development and will have far-reaching consequences for disabled people who stand at greatest risk. We hope the DPP's new guidelines do not weaken the protection offered to disabled people under existing law and end up creating legislation on assisted suicide by the back door.

Richard Hawkes

Chief Executive, disability charity Scope, London N7

It appears that the vast majority of people who believe in a right to end one's own suffering life when one chooses, are those who have witnessed a loved one pass away in pain (letters, 20 February). No one who has watched someone they love die, without hope of recovery, can argue it is right to prolong their suffering and that of those around them.

I watched my father die slowly and painfully at times. Terminal cancer with advanced Alzheimer's is a sign that a life is over. When can it ever be right to prolong such a state?

Death does not always follow a plan and people are left to struggle along unaided, for all the talk about the "help" available. Other family members, especially children, are neglected. Relatives are deprived of sleep and time to do anything other than care, worry or cry as their lives are smothered by the fog of death.

Only those ignorant of how messy the end of a life can be can force their idealistic opinions on everyone else. Don't anyone tell me the best way or the right way for me to die. It is my business alone. If you think my children will be expected to nurse me through a lingering death, think again. I love them too much. They will remember me how they deserve to remember me. I speak from experience.

H J Burton

New Brinsley, Nottinghamshire

I was a GP in a small rural practice for 25 years. As I grew more experienced, so I felt able to take over more and more the terminal care of my cancer patients.

I learned that it was possible to reduce or even eliminate pain without undue sedation by careful titration of the dose of opiates. The phenomenon of toleration meant that the dose had continually to be increased. The introduction of the syringe driver was a boon and I recall one patient with multiple bony secondaries to whose house I took, every morning, three 500mg ampoules of diamorphine (heroin) to recharge her syringe driver for the next 24 hours.

This is 50 times the standard dose and would kill you or me. My patient, however, was comfortable and alert and, with the help of my wonderful district nurses, lived for many weeks in the bosom of her family before dying peacefully. Not only did I not shorten her life; I am convinced that I increased her survival time, as she was free from agony and stress.

I retired before Shipman. I doubt if any GP nowadays would dare use the sort of doses I (and my colleagues) did, for fear that some ignorant lawyer would get hold of the British National Formulary and apply the standard acute dose to a totally different situation and charge me with murder.

I always put the patient's comfort and quality of life first but never felt the need to "hasten the end" of any patient, and indeed never did so.

Dr David Wheeler

Dalston, Cumbria

First, collect the taxes that are due

The debate over how to reduce the Government's budget deficit has already become far too narrowly focused. The issue is not simply a choice between spending cuts, higher tax rates, and a combination of the two.

HM Revenue and Customs has published a report estimating that there is a shortfall of £40bn in tax revenues, caused by tax avoidance and tax evasion – and these estimates look very much on the low side.

Before any politicians start suggesting which public services they plan to cut, or which taxes they might increase, would they like to set out their strategy to reduce this appalling shortfall in tax revenues? There is no reason why those who avoid or evade tax should be able to hold the rest of society to ransom.

Nigel Wilkins

London SW7

Hope for a world without Aids

Dr Brian Williams is right to highlight the benefit of HIV treatment in preventing new infections ("Aids: is the end in sight?", 22 February). However Steve Connor is wrong to imply that in the current absence of a vaccine, anti-retroviral drugs may be "all that we have left". It is not "either or".

The challenges of getting everybody tested, on treatment and adhering to treatment are huge. In 2005 the G8, led by the UK, made a commitment to free access to HIV treatment for all in need by 2010, but there are still over 5 million people in urgent need of treatment. Even in the UK, where testing and treatment are readily available, many remain undiagnosed and untreated, and new HIV infections continue. Treatment will save millions of lives and we must step up our efforts, but treatment alone cannot stop the spread of HIV.

Progress towards a vaccine is being made. Only a few months ago the International Aids Vaccine Initiative and its partners discovered two new antibodies that could enable new approaches.

We need every tool possible: treatment, new prevention tools, a vaccine, and education. All of which require investment. Dr Williams reminds us that with the right commitment a world without HIV and Aids is possible.

Deborah Jack

National AIDS Trust, London EC1

Crown Prosecution Service reformed

While I fully accept that the performance of the Crown Prosecution Service in London is not what it should be, an out-of-date email from a former employee needs to be treated with more care than was afforded in your article "Crown Prosecution Service in London is 'near meltdown'" (23 February). Turning things around in London is one of the biggest challenges for the CPS and I, along with the Director of Public Prosecutions, am fully focused on that task.

We are making great strides. I am recruiting more prosecutors and paralegal officers and have just moved 45 members of staff to front-line services to improve case preparation and to ensure court hearings run more smoothly.

Your article was based on an email written eight months ago by a lawyer who left before many of the recent improvements were introduced, and at a time of local upheaval after staff had moved locations. These same staff tell me they are now better settled, and they are working hard to improve the service in Lewisham and across London.

Alison Saunders

Chief Crown Prosecutor, London


Theological question

Canon Warner (Letter, 24 February) defends theology as an academic discipline on the grounds that politicians need to understand potential enemies' theology in order to "win their hearts and minds". That may be a valid argument for teaching religious studies – learning about religion. But I suggest it doesn't work very well as a defence of theology – learning about God.

Robin Orton

London SE26

Film choice

And congratulations go to... Bafta. As a Bafta member, I was worried by the inclusion of Avatar in the short lists for best picture and director. In the event I am reassured that the membership can still see the difference between ground-breaking FX and the masterful film-making evident in The Hurt Locker. If it had also been The White Ribbon, as best film not in the English language, it would have been spot on.

Ginger Gibbons

London SW11

Whose recession?

I heard it again on Question Time, the phrase "Gordon Brown's recession" from some right-wing speaker, as if the drip, drip, drip of it could somehow alter the fact that it's the bankers to blame, not the Government. To argue that regulation was too weak is like saying that the robbery took place because the police didn't get there before the criminals. The banking classes should pay for the mess they created, not the struggling classes. If this results in a class war, bring it on.

Mike Robinson

Louth, Lincolnshire

Porridge: no mystery

I was amazed to read that porridge isn't easy to make ("Porridge, a cereal thriller", 20 February). Most mornings I put three spoonfuls of ordinary raw oats in a bowl, add cold water (hot makes it go lumpy) stir well, and put it in the microwave for one and a half minutes. Stir well again, add salt and skimmed milk, and breakfast is sorted. Or add sugar and cream, whisky and salt in Scotland, butter and cinnamon in Denmark. No pans to wash, no hassle. Why don't they write this on their packets?

Ruth Harrison

Aylsham, Norfolk

Evils of torture

On the value of information obtained under torture (letters, 16, 17 February), it is instructive to consider the case of the young man accused of murdering the Duke of Buckingham. When threatened with torture by Archbishop Laud if he did not confess, he replied: "If I am racked, my Lord, I may happen in my agony to accuse your lordship." The Archbishop thought better of it.

David Jessop