Here’s a perfect example of the libel laws preventing literature and public interest debate: Pulitzer Prize-winner Lawrence Wright’s book Going Clear will not be published in the UK. His British publiser Transworld have said that some of the content was “not robust enough for the UK market.”
This is not a euphemism for saying the book is fabricated. It means that although the author is confident of what he has written, neither he nor his publishers can afford the time or the money to defend the claims against the (famously litigious) Church of Scientology.
I spoke to the Guardian about Transworld’s decision:
“It’s a classic example of the chill that is cast over free speech by these laws, where people choose to self-censor,” says Robert Sharp, head of campaigns and communications at the human rights organisation English PEN. “Something like religion is in the public interest. We should be allowed to scrutinise and criticise it. The cover-up of abuses by the Catholic church is a prime example of what happens when you don’t.”
The House of Lords are debating the Defamation Bill today. The hope is that reforms would firm up definitions of comment, raise the ‘harm’ threshold before a case is brought, and deliver a better ‘public interest’ defence. Once the Bill is enacted, it should be possible for a book like Going Clear to be published in Britain. One might say that if a book like this is still subjected to this kind of self-censorship, then it cannot be said that the libel laws have been truly ‘reformed’.
Elsewhere, BBC Journalist John Sweeney has written about Scientology. His book, the Church of Fear, was not picked up by the major publishers.
The cult-like practices of the Church of Scientology are outlined in this 1984 High Court custody judgement.