Robert Sharp, of freedom of expression group English PEN and the Libel Reform Campaign, said: “The worrying gap between protections in England and Wales and Scotland is allowing a chilling loophole to exist and this is especially concerning after Scots voted to stay in the United Kingdom.”
The internet, and in particular social media, means that defamatory statements published in England, for example, could almost certainly be deemed to have been published in Scotland. So somebody who believes they have been defamed online – in, for example, the electronic version of a newspaper, story can now choose where to sue.
Mr Sharp added: “We have every respect for Scots law and understand that it is not the same. But as long as the loophole exists, the chill exists. As long as we have the UK, we can say that if somebody has a reputation in England that can be tarnished, they have a reputation in Scotland too. This is a real constitutional issue and we hope Scotland will adopt a defamation act quickly.”
Today The Herald has published an opinion piece by me, urging reform of the libel law in Scotland.
Incredibly, the cradle of the Enlightenment offers fewer free speech protections than England and Wales. This state of affairs cannot be allowed to continue.
Read the whole thing in the paper, or at HeraldScotland.com.
On Tuesday I was quoted in a Belfast Telegraph report on the rise of super-injunctions in Northern Ireland. Super-injunctions, you will recall, are those special types of gagging-order where the judge not only stops you from reporting certain facts, but also bars you from even telling anyone you’ve been censored. As a rule of thumb, this tends to be a bad thing. Continue reading Canaries down the free speech mine
As is my wont, I made a book to illustrate this. Physical objects are useful props in debates like this: immediately illustrative, and useful to hang an argument and peoples’ attention on.
James Bridle is probably best known as the artist who first articulated ‘The New Aesthetic‘, but he has run many projects on books and technology. His project ‘The Iraq War‘ is a favourite of mine – the entire Wikipedia Edit History of the ‘Iraq War’ article, from 2005-2009, which stretches to twelve volumes. He’s also the creator of a Book of Tweets.
James’ projects are the inspiration of one of my own – The Defamation Act 2013: Complete & Unabridged. It collects together, in chronological order, every single parliamentary document published during the passage of the recent reform of our libel law. These include the various versions of the Bill (which I have previously published in a spliced together version, ‘Tracked Changes in the Defamation Bill‘), the parliamentary Hansard transcripts of the debates; and the amendment papers. Continue reading The Defamation Act 2013: Complete & Unabridged
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.
Continue reading An Enclosures Act of the Mind? Libel and the NHS
The folk at the brilliant OurKingdom blog commissioned a piece from me on the next steps for Libel Reform. The crucial issue:
During the Parliamentary debates, the Government flatly rejected proposals to extend the Derbyshire principle to private companies spending taxpayers money. British citizens are therefore confronted with a looming democratic deficit. As private companies take over the running of prisons, waste collection, school dinners, care homes, and large swathes of the NHS, the space to criticise them is squeezed. By leaving the Derbyshire principle to the courts to develop further, the Government have introduced an unwelcome ambiguity into our public discourse, especially at the local level. It will be left to citizens to closely monitor how the big subcontractors behave in this area. Any hint that these corporations are stifling public criticism through use of the libel law must be met with a public outcry.
Read the whole article, What next for libel reform?, on the OurKingdom blog.
Jubilate! The Defamation Bill recieved Royal Assent yesterday. It is now the Defamation Act 2013.
Watching the legislative process up close has been fascinating. It fills me with confidence that candidate laws are put to such detailed and rigourous debate.
To give a sense of how a Bill changes as it passes through both Houses of Parliament, I have created a Defamation Bill (Tracked Changes) document. Download a PDF [223 KB] or a Word Document [49 KB]. It is based on the successive Bills and amendments found on the Houses of Parliament website. In the document, you can see how some clauses were tweaked, with the alteration of a word here or there. In other places you can see where whole clauses were added and then removed, as the House of Commons disagreed with the House of Lords. Continue reading Tracked Changes in the Defamation Bill
There’s a little bit of confusion over what happened during the Defamation Bill debate in the House of Lords yesterday afternoon, and today in the House of Commons. This is understandable, as the ‘ping-pong’ process is confusing, with ‘motions to agree amendments’… and amendments to those amendments.
The only issue at stake was was hurdles should be placed before companies wishing to sue. The pre-exising law allows corporates to bully critics with libel threats and a legal ‘reputation management’ industry has emerged, with websites and bloggers receiving threats unless they remove critical content. Which?, the consumer magazine that reviews products, often receives a legal threat after they give a product a poor rating!
In an earlier parliamentary debate, Labour succeeded in adding a significant clause to the Defamation Bill. It introduced a permissions stage for companies (you can’t sue without leave of the court) and asked them to show financial loss. It also extended the Derbyshire principle, so private bodies delivering public services could not sue when they are criticised by citizens questioning how taxpayers money is spent. Three measures in one clause.
No, not a day where we pick someone to defame. Instead it is the final parliamentary debate on the Defamation Bill.
Following this process has been a great way to watch how law-making really happens. In this case, the Government published a draft Bill for consultation. The proposed law was then debated on the floor of the House of Commons, then by a smaller group of MPs in a Public Bill Committee (days 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5), then again in the House of Commons. A similar process took place in the House of Lords, with a more generalised debate preceding detailed scrutiny in a Grand Committee (days 1, 2, 3 and 4), followed by more debates.
Now, the amendments made to the Bill by each House are being debated and accepted by the other. Today, the House of Lords have one final aspect of the Defamation Bill to consider, which is the limits that should be placed on ‘non-natural persons’ (i.e. companies and associations) that wish to sue.
The Government have already agreed that a corporation must show financial loss if they want to claim that they have suffered serious harm, but is still dragging its feet on what access private companies delivering taxpayer-funded services should have to the libel law.
Currently, central government and local councils cannot sue their citizens! This is established by the common-law Derbyshire principle, which protects unhibited criticism of democratically elected institutions and their agencies. However, the trend towards contracting out public services to private companies means that this principle has been undermined. For example, you can criticise a publically run prison, or a local council’s waste collection service… but if you criticise a private prison or a sub-contracted bin collection service, then you run the risk of a libel threat!
With the reforms to the NHS meaning more services will be commissioned from private companies, this loophole will only get bigger. Imagine if your healthcare was managed poorly, and a blog or a tweet about it prompted a lawyers letter!
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 Writing on Libel Reform on Liberal Democrat Voice