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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What the hell just happened with 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.

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Defamation Day

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!

This afternoon, the House of Lords will be debating this issue and hopefully they will vote to fix it in the Defamation Bill.  I will be watching the debate online on the Houses of Parliament website.