Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Campaign for Libel Reform

This morning, a merry band of celebrities, journalists, lawyers, assorted press and bloggers joined representatives of of English PEN, Index on Censorship and Sense About Science at the Law Society to launch the Campaign for Libel Reform

Their recent ‘Free Speech Is Not For Sale’ has provoked a welcome response from Jack Straw who has set up a group to respond to it. He, like many in the Conservative and Lib-Dem parties, seems to now be amenable to change in English libel laws. Evan Harris MP said:
“There are reasons to be encouraged … there’s a kind of moment around the issue of free speech”. In fact, the timing is crucial.

Journalist Nick Cohen pointed out:
“Across the developed world, money is flowing out of journalism. There isn’t the money to fight libel actions. Newspapers back off all the time”

Perhaps we’re at what A. C. Grayling called a “sewerage moment”, a reference to the mid-nineteenth century ‘great stink’ when Parliament was finally forced to confront a contamination by its arrival at its own front door. As a river running with cloaca precipitated the building of a network of sewers, will super-injunctions be the midwife of fairer libel laws?

It’s not just an esoteric or academic issue. Tracey Brown of Sense About Science reminded us that libel chill in the UK affects many areas including human rights reporting, academic standards and medicinal research: as Edzard Ernst put it: “libel law has the potential to kill”. Nick Ross added: “It’s about bullying … done under a veneer of respectability and decency”.

The campaign has the public support of many, including Stephen Fry, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown and Jonathan Ross. I spotted Dr. Raymond Tallis, Professor Edzard Ernst, Dr. Simon Singh, Professor Chris French, Professor Richard Wiseman and Professor A. C. Grayling for the academics. Dr. Evan Harris MP, a stalwart of evidence based-policy and major supporter of libel-law reform was there too. Journalists included Roger Highfield, editor of The New Scientist and Observer regular Nick Cohen. Legal types Mark Lewis, Robert Dougans and Jack of Kent joined media folk Robin Ince, Dave Gorman, Nick Ross, Dara O Briain & Alexei Sayle.

Apologies if I’ve missed anyone out.

The ruinous cost of libel in the UK was reiterated. Simon Singh has spent eighteen months in time and £100K in money, and he’s nowhere near finished yet. Dr. Peter Wilmshurst could be ruined if he loses against NMT Medical - although he may not be much better off if he wins, as The Guardian found out when Matthias Rath took issue with an article by Ben Goldacre. They won, but are still out of pocket by £175K

Alexei Sayle, said that he’d once been sued for libel:

“… the thought that I could lose everything for damaging someone’s reputation … it would have been cheaper if I’d stabbed the fucker”

Let’s hope we’re seeing the beginning of a successful campaign. As Mark Lewis, Dr Peter Wilmshurt’s solicitor, put it:
“Libel laws were a more civilised replacement for duelling. There’s something wrong when people say “Maybe duelling wasn’t so bad after all”.”

BBC coverage

Jack of Kent


  1. Great write-up but it's Tracey Brown from Sense About Science, not King.

  2. Thanks Tracy. Serves me right for writing so late at night!