Free speech is the courage to burn bridges

The year 2015 has begun with a great deal of debate about free speech. The fanatics who murdered the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists saw to that—their sympathisers in Copenhagen have kept the fire burning.

The discussion has largely been about what one can say about your ideological opponents. Is it Okay to blaspheme? What are the limits to giving offence? When does criticism of one group or another slide into hate speech and incitement. In these examples we usually debate whether the law can interfere with our speech.

It’s worth noting that other kinds of free speech dilemmas exist. An important example of this is on show in Peter Oborne’s seething explanation for why he resigned from the Daily Telegraph.
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An Enclosures Act of the Mind? Libel and the NHS

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.
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"A looming democratic deficit"?

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.

Critical Mass

Rangoon monksGood luck, of course, to the Buddhist monks, nuns, and the growning number of Burmese citizens who are protesting against their excessive junta.

Last month, OpenDemocracy published an article by Yury Drakakhrust on the Algebra of Revolution:

How many protesters in the streets does it take to bring an authoritarian government down? … The model comprises two elements: the level of popular support for the opposition (dissidents) and the number of people who can be mobilised for action (activists).

The Burmese situation seems quite positive, since as a religious group the Buddhists can mobilise a great deal of ‘activists’. But unlike the weak governments of Eastern Europe (which Drakakhrust uses as examples), the junta in Burma is much more entrenched. This would presumably alter the equation.

But other factors should tip the balance in the other direction. This BBC quote gives some hope:

Aung Naing Oo, a former student leader in Burma who was involved in the 1988 uprising and who now lives in exile in the UK, believes the junta cannot stop the 2007 protesters. “Nobody knew what was happening in 1988,” he told the Today programme on BBC Radio Four.

“There was only very little information about the killings. Now with the internet and the whole world watching I think its a totally different story now…”