Nov 11 2010

English Libel Reform

We are in the midst of a public push for libel reform in England. (I know there is a difference between England and the UK. Apparently it is the English libel laws that are the major problem, but still the issue is often presented as reforming UK libel laws, which I guess would subsume the English laws.) This issue came most prominently to light over the British Chiropractic Association’s libel suit against Simon Singh. Simon rode that costly trial through and eventually the BCA withdrew and will have to pay Simon’s legal costs.

The episode helped fuel a libel reform campaign – a grassroots campaign to keep the political pressure on for reform. This is one of those issues that will only change with constant public pressure – and you can help. Add your signature to the petition here: http://libelreform.org/

This is an issue of free speech. While everyone deserves the right to defend their reputation from malicious attack, there needs to be a proper balance to also protect public discourse and free speech. In England the libel laws are simply broken. It is ruinously expensive to defend even a frivolous libel suit, so the threat of suit can be used to silence critics and stifle debate.

David Colquhoun on his Improbable Science blog today presents some recent examples of much needed scientific criticism being silenced by bullying libel suits.

The issue is especially relevant to science bloggers, even those outside the UK. Libel suits can be brought against American citizens in English court (so-called libel tourism). Science especially needs honest and frank criticism – transparent criticism is a healthy and even necessary component of the scientific process. As readers of this blog know, there is a great deal of bad science and pseudoscience out there, and the “take no prisoners” criticism of science is much needed to combat this pseudoscience in the public domain. It is precisely this public criticism of bad science that is threatened by unbalanced libel laws.

Often the targets of sharp criticism are interested mainly in protecting their profits. This may be a legitimate company in which scientific research did not go their way, and now they wish to protect their profits from the evidence. But also there are many con artists and charlatans out there, and they react the most violently to criticism – the bigger the lie the more indignant one must seem when called on it. Further – they are con artists, so they have no moral compunction against abusing libel laws to bully their critics and protect their profit stream.

When the claims of honest scientists are attacked they defend themselves with evidence. When the claims of charlatans are attacked they defend themselves with personal attacks and threat of suit. The libel laws exist to protect people from malicious attacks against their reputations. They are necessary, but they are also easily abused. I think the US generally has a good balance between protecting individual reputations and protecting free speech and public discourse. Meanwhile English libel laws are an international disgrace and menace to free speech.

I urge you to sign the petition (http://libelreform.org/) – the campaign is making progress but we have not yet achieved critical mass sufficient to overcome the political hurdles.

10 responses so far

10 Responses to “English Libel Reform”

  1. SpicyCupcakeon 11 Nov 2010 at 9:12 am

    This really does need to be fixed and I’m 100% behind this movement. One thing to add that I feel is important:

    “Libel suits can be brought against American citizens in English court (so-called libel tourism). Science especially needs honest and frank criticism – transparent criticism is a healthy and even necessary component of the scientific process.”

    United State’s citizens and corporations are protected by the SPEECH act. It is not perfect but it does protect bloggers and most facets of media from the frivolous defamation suits. The first two links go over some of the nuances involved; I hope in a helpful way. The second two links are more anecdotal of how it has already helped.

    http://www.jdsupra.com/post/documentViewer.aspx?fid=98582985-996e-4fff-ac55-3d3e8579bdd6

    http://www.techdirt.com/articles/20100811/00361310577.shtml

    http://johnhelmer.net/?p=4062

    http://www.techdirt.com/blog.php?tag=libel+tourism&edition=techdirt

  2. HHCon 11 Nov 2010 at 10:53 am

    The impetus to change the libel laws of the United Kingdom was spear-headed by the Labor Party, which is currently out of power.
    The current government is led by a coalition of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. Do you think that the coalition is interested in changing libel laws?

  3. MaikUniversumon 11 Nov 2010 at 11:46 am

    If someone profit from it, it won’t be changed. :)

  4. Taliskeron 12 Nov 2010 at 9:17 am

    @Steven: “English” law applies in England and Wales. Scotland has its own distinct legal system (as does Northern Ireland). The problem, and the campaign for reform, apply to English libel law.

    @HHC: The previous Labour government had a pretty dismal record on freedom of expression (and related issues such as the right to privacy). They started reviewing libel law only because of an intense public outcry led by Simon Singh and others. The Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition, for all its faults, appears to value civil liberties somewhat more highly, so there is some hope for progress here.

  5. ccbowerson 12 Nov 2010 at 5:41 pm

    I’m still not clear on how the libel laws don’t seem to prevent “The Sun” and “The Daily Mail” from existing. Having such strict libel laws would seem to preclude such tabloid newspapers from existing, yet they appear to be fairly “successful.” Do they exploit loopholes in the laws?

  6. HHCon 13 Nov 2010 at 10:40 am

    In the U.S., the Constitution modulates libel laws, while in the U.K., there is only the Crown. Its “God Save the Queen” without a constitution in the United Kingdom.

    Rupert Murdoch, media mogul, is the owner of newspapers, cable networks, and television networks in the U.K. Unless media barons such as Murdoch support libel reform, it may not succeed. Is there an incentive for the media to support it?

  7. mr.bobblesquaton 14 Nov 2010 at 8:37 pm

    As I understand the English law, as a nascent American blogger, if anything I write happens to be read by anybody in England that rubs a party the wrong way, I can be sued for libel in England whether the plaintiff resides in or is a citizen of England. If that indeed is the case, then the world at large is a target for libel suits in England.

    If I am wrong, please disabuse me of this interpretation. If I am right, a person or party anywhere on the planet would be daft not to sign this petition.

    Is it true the primary supporters of this law in England are solicitors and barristers who have made this type of lawsuit a siche business?

  8. Taliskeron 15 Nov 2010 at 6:48 am

    @ccbowers: The Sun, Mail, et al. have large and well-funded legal teams for fighting libel suits, and can afford to pay the fines if they lose. IIRC Simon Singh would have faced fines and legal fees in excess of £100,000 if he had lost his libel defence. For a blogger, academic or freelance journalist this is a major deterrent, but for a large media company it is simply a cost of doing business.

    Also, bringing a libel prosecution is very expensive — legal fees are paid up front, and not refunded until and unless you win the case. The genuinely rich and powerful sue for libel without hesitation, minor celebrities and ordinary citizens are much less able to do so.

    @hhc: It hasn’t been “only the Crown” in England for about 800 years. The UK is governed according to Parliamentary legislation and legal precedent; but the lack of a constitution means there is nothing which would automatically override any particular Act of Parliament. One could argue that the libel law is in conflict with recent human rights legislation, and the UK’s treaty obligations under the European Convention of Human Rights, but this is much more difficult than offering a First Amendment defence in a US court.

    As for media barons such as Murdoch, making it more difficult to sue for libel could actually benefit the tabloids, so they will not necessarily oppose reform. A more interesting question is how much pressure can be exerted behind the scenes by other wealthy individuals, who benefit from the existing state of affairs. Time will tell.

  9. HHCon 15 Nov 2010 at 11:57 am

    Talisker, I like your argument regarding the European Convention on Human Rights. I’m reading Tony Blair’s new book,” A Journey: My Political Life” and I am becoming aware of the importance of this convention.

  10. HHCon 16 Nov 2010 at 2:26 pm

    mr.bobblesquat, I believe that there must be a nexus to England or Wales in order to file suit.

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