Our libel laws are gagging our scientists

Cost makes the law a high-stakes poker game where you’ve had to go all-in.

Dara O. Briain
Sunday 21 October 2012 19:30 BST
(Getty Images)

Defending a libel case is complex, time-consuming and extremely expensive.

At the last general election, all three parties promised large-scale reform of the law – the first since 1843 – to protect public debate and freedom of expression. The Government published a Defamation Bill earlier this year, yet, nothing has changed.

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

The Government promised its reforms would protect people like Simon, Ben and Peter. But winning a case can still cost three years of your life and £1.5m. Such costs have reduced the law to a high-stakes game of poker which favours those who can force you to go all-in.

The libel reform Bill that the Government is currently working on doesn’t go far enough in protecting scientists, academics and bloggers from being sued in the future.

Currently, the only “public-interest” defence is the Reynolds defence, which is pretty much unsuitable for scientific debate, consumer groups and in particular, those who publish on the internet. It simply doesn’t work for organisations like Mumsnet, Which? or patient groups and online forums: it doesn’t apply to the way public debates happen now.

The public interest provision in the Bill, rather than the proper reform the Government promised, is just a codified version of Reynolds. 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 the BMJ, by consumer groups including Citizens Advice and Which?, by human rights NGOs and newspapers – by people across society who want to talk about evidence. Now we’ve had an important endorsement from Ed Miliband. 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 properly.

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

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