Here’s an article I posted yesterday on the OurNHS section of OpenDemocracy.
In many ways, the Defamation Act 2013 was good for medicine. During the course of the Libel Reform Campaign, English PEN met dozens of doctors and medical journalists who had been silenced by the famously restrictive English libel law. Pharmaceutical companies used the archaic law to prevent the publication of valid criticism by medical professionals. Fiona Godlee, editor of the British Medical Journal, told a Libel Reform rally how factual reports on medical treatments had been ‘softened’ or even spiked because of libel fears.
The Defamation Act 2013, which English PEN and the Libel Reform Campaign spent three years fighting for, gives strong legal protections to peer reviewed articles. Patients and commissioners should be able to learn of any doubts that doctors have about pharmaceuticals and new treatments. The Act also includes measures to limit the progress of trivial claims, and a new public interest defence. In 2007 Goldacre faced a libel claim from vitamin pill manufacturer Matthias Rath after he used his ‘Bad Science’ column to critique claims that these pills could cure AIDS. Although Goldacre eventually won the case brought against him, the battle left him significantly out of pocket. The new Act should help journalists like Dr Ben Goldacre see off the pharmaceutical libel bullies.
Over the weekend, I wrote a short piece about the Defamation Bill for Liberal Democrat Voice, urging activists to lobby their party leadership. The Defamation Bill is to be debated in the House of Commons today, so it is worth cross-posting this now, before the crucial votes render it obsolete! This morning, Stephen Tall wrote a follow up post: ‘Lib Dems Libel Reform retreat points to a wider coalition problem‘.
There is a new threat to the Defamation Bill.
No sooner had the proposed law been liberated, after being taken hostage by Leveson negotiations, than Conservative MPs have begun messing with crucial free speech provisions.
Former libel lawyer Sir Edward Garnier MP has tabled an amendment seeking to remove a crucial clause from the Defamation Bill. The clause places some limits on corporations’ use of the libel laws. It does not bar them from suing entirely – just asks that they show financial loss before they do so. It’s an objective and measurable test for companies, who after all do not have feelings.
Such a law would have discouraged the crippling libel cases brought by Big Pharma against Dr Peter Wilmshurst and Dr Ben Goldacre. It would have helped Simon Singh. It would stop the costly ‘lawfare’ waged by the extractive industries around the world against human rights groups like Global Witness. It would stop scientists and doctors from having to decide whether to speak out for their patients and risk selling their house in order to pay legal fees… Or keep their mouths shut. Continue reading
First posted on OpenDemocracy
The government has responded to grassroots pressure for libel reform, but its proposals do not go far enough towards genuinely safeguarding free speech on the internet and ensuring that powerful corporations cannot silence their critics.
During a panel event on Defamation Reform earlier this year, the lawyer Paul Tweed said that the recent focus on Libel Tourism was the result of “the most successful lobbying campaign since that conducted by the tobacco industry”. Those of us at English PEN, Index on Censorship and Sense About Science who had done some of that lobbying gleefully re-tweeted Tweed’s back-handed compliment.
We’re lobbying for libel reform in the UK because we believe the law is not fit for purpose in the 21st Century. The high cost of fighting an action in the High Court is coupled with a law that seems to prioritise reputation over free expression. The truth of the matter and the harm caused are presumed in favour of the claimant. And because the law has not been updated to reflect the invention of the Internet, each web-page is treated as a ‘publication’ as if it were a book printed in the country where it is read. All this has created the phenomenon of Libel Tourism, where foreign libel claimants take advantage of the English Courts’ claimant-friendly jurisdiction.