Authors plead with government not to risk planned libel reforms

Simon Singh leads calls for politicians to get stalled Defamation Bill on to statute book

Nigel Morris@NigelpMorris
Wednesday 06 March 2013 19:58
Scientific writer Simon Singh; Salman Rushdie and Stephen Fry are supporting the campaign
Scientific writer Simon Singh; Salman Rushdie and Stephen Fry are supporting the campaign

The scientific writer at the centre of a free speech battle has pleaded with political leaders not to allow planned libel reforms to be risked by in-fighting over the future of the press.

Simon Singh said the libel overhaul was “incredibly important” to prevent the silencing of authors and bloggers as prominent writers including Salman Rushdie and Ian McEwan made a joint appeal for the stalled Defamation Bill to be pushed into law.

Their call came after Downing Street made clear it would abandon the measure unless amendments to the Bill passed in the Lords are dropped.

The amendments, which were championed by a Labour peer, were designed to create an arbitration service for victims of press intrusion similar to that proposed by Lord Justice Leveson in his report into media ethics.

Dr Singh was sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association over an article he wrote querying the treatment of certain childhood conditions. The association eventually dropped its action after a battle in court.

He told The Independent it was “incredibly urgent” to get the reforms on to the statute book to end Britain's status as the world's libel capital.

Dr Singh said: “Every week that goes by, a blogger is gagged or a book is pulled by its publisher. It's about bringing the libel laws up to speed for the 21st century and making them fair. It's not just about having the right to read whatever I want, but everyone's right to hear the whole story.”

He added: “Libel reform was in every manifesto, there was cross-party agreement and it was in the Coalition Agreement. We were just about there and now the Bill is in jeopardy.”

In an open letter to David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband, authors said they were “deeply concerned” over the threat to the legislation.

They said: “The Defamation Bill is not a suitable vehicle for the wider proposals of press regulation - as Lord Justice Leveson himself noted, libel did not form part of his terms of reference. It is therefore entirely inappropriate, and even reckless, for libel reform to be sacrificed to the current political stalemate.”

They said: “Our libel laws are not just a national disgrace, but an international concern. The UN Human Rights Committee singled the UK out for the impact of libel on freedom of expression.”

Signatories included Antonia Fraser, Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan, David Hare, Stephen Fry, Michael Frayn, Tom Stoppard and Claire Tomalin.

The comedian Al Murray, a supporter of the campaign, told the Independent: “We need to knock MPs' heads together to get the Defamation Bill passed and sort out our world-class embarrassing libel law once and for all.”

The progress of the legislation through Westminster has come to a halt after amendments by the Labour peer, Lord Puttnam, were passed in the Lords. Supporters said the amendments - drawn up in conjunction with peers of all parties - were an expression of frustration of the lack of progress in all-party talks over Leveson. Critics countered that they were an attempt to introduce Leveson by stealth.

Mr Cameron has fiercely opposed any statutory underpinning of press regulation and no date has been set by the Government to bring the Bill back to the Commons.

Unless Labour or the Liberal Democrats change stance, there would be every chance of a majority of MPs backing the amendments in the Commons. Under those circumstances Mr Cameron seems prepared to let the Defamation Bill run out of time.

The Prime Minister's official spokesman said the “Puttnam amendments” were not Government policy. He said: “The Government does not support these and has been clear they will not go on to the statute book.”

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