MPs tell us that libel reform is a ‘cause whose time has come’

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Thursday 10th March 2011

Today MPs and Peers responded to the Libel Reform Campaign’s blueprint for reform in advance of the publication of the Government’s defamation bill next week, saying this is a ‘once in a lifetime chance’ to radically reform the laws. Download the blueprint, What should a defamation bill contain?, here.

Lord Bach, Opposition Spokesperson for Justice, said that “reform of the defamation laws is clearly a cause whose time has come. This is a campaign that has massive support. I congratulate the Libel Reform Campaign on having got to this stage.”

His comments were echoed by other MPs and Peers.

David Davis, MP for Haltemprice and Howden, agreed that “we have a massive mandate for change here; there is no doubt about that. This is a once in a generation opportunity. If we get it wrong our children pay the consequences.”

Denis Macshane, MP for Rotherham, reiterated “this is not a once in a generation chance, but once in a lifetime. We cannot let this slip.”

Lord Willis of Knaresborough urged the campaign to continue to “use all of its might to make sure the Government’s bill is translated into real action.”

Lord Lester of Herne Hill said, “The problem for libel reform is we are not starting with a clean slate but with 300 years of case law.”

Julian Huppert, MP for Cambridge said “we want a system where the side that wins is the one with the truth not the one with the most cash.”

The meeting was chaired by Dr Evan Harris, former Lib Dem MP and who said, “We all accept the current libel laws are unacceptable. Everybody here wants next week's Government draft defamation bill to match the contents of our blueprint and if it fails to do so will be urging MPs and peers to amend it.”

Parliamentarians today heard from a wide range of organisations from Mumsnet and Facebook to Which? and the journal Nature.

Martyn Hocking, editor of Which? magazine told MPs how money spent on lawyers holds back work protecting consumers. He warned that public interest should be at the heart of the Government’s reforms because "we're getting to the point where even responsible media hesitate before publishing research or expert opinion for fear of being sued."

Hosts of online discussions and social media sites told MPs the laws need to be modernised to accommodate the internet.

 

Richard Allan of Facebook said “we celebrate the fact that we have created a platform for people to speak freely. The current libel laws are an accident waiting to happen.”

Justine Roberts, co-founder and CEO of Mumsnet, said “current libel laws are simply out of date. They are analogue laws in a digital age. Wholesale reform of English defamation law must be a real priority for our parliamentary representatives.”

Dr Fiona Godlee, Editor-in-Chief of the BMJ spoke about the impact of the laws on medical publishing. She said “like all editors I am aware of articles softened or pulled because of libel threats. Science and medicine require independent and rigorous debate – not a ‘nice to have’ but a ‘must have’. The current libel laws are utterly against the interests of scientists and therefore the interests of patients and the public.”

Dr Philip Campbell, Editor in Chief of Nature said the libel laws impact on the reporting of issues including research misconduct. He said “either we chose not to cover a story because the impact is not worth the incredible effort and time it takes or we suffer by covering the story.”

Simon Singh, science writer and libel defendant, said, “Scientists and science journalists who have been the victims of libel actions, including me, are anxious to see radical reform so that others do not have to suffer the same threats to their freedom of speech.”

Charmian Gooch of Global Witness told MPs about the impact of the laws on human rights campaigners: “The need for libel reform affects NGOs working on a wide range of issues across all aspects of civic society. It is categorically not a tabloid issue.”

Naomi McAuliffe, Amnesty International UK said “when we’re targeting companies, everything from reports to leaflets have to be checked by lawyers. This is not something that my colleagues across the world have to do; it is something we have to do in the UK. It is an expense our members should not have to pay and it is an expense that could otherwise be spent on exposing grave human rights abuses.”

Peter Noorlander, Media Legal Defence Initiative said “we help journalists in countries such as Nepal or Ukraine defend libel cases in their countries. These journalists used to think of the UK as a safe haven for free speech - but increasingly they are threatened with libel suits in London which they cannot as a matter of practicality defend.”

Eric Metcalfe from Justice spoke about the high cost of libel litigation. He said “in the last 21 years the libel lottery has only grown worse. The high cost has become a real threat to freedom of expression in this country.”

Richard Mollet, Publishers’ Association said “We look forward to reading the draft defamation bill, and recognise that its publication is a crucial step in reforming our current libel laws. The book industry should not be impeded by archaic laws which deny publishers the right to be truly independent and free to express opinion and ideas in the public interest.”

Tracey Brown, Sense About Science, responding to discussion about the national media, said “we have some of the tightest libel laws in the world and people suffer unfair damage to their reputations. Why should those people have to use anti-free speech laws and spend 18 months and £200,000 to get a correction? We need other means to resolve inaccuracy quickly. Under new law we should be encouraged to ask ‘is it true?’, rather than ‘will they sue?’”

Jonathan Heawood, English PEN said that the public interest is often best served by allowing open debate. He told MPs “We would much rather live in a society characterised by noisy imperfection than perfect silence.”

MPs also heard a statement of support for the Libel Reform Campaign blueprint signed by Jonathan Ross, Marcus Brigstocke, Nick Ross, Dr Ben Goldacre, Dave Gorman, Joan Bakewell, Professor Nancy Rothwell, AC Grayling, Shappi Khorsandi and others.

On behalf of the signatories to the statement author and President of English PEN Gillian Slovo reiterated: “We all believe that any individual whose reputation is damaged by a false and defamatory publication should have recourse to the law. But beyond that we need to protect freedom of expression and the rights of citizen critics, and to prevent powerful interests from shutting down discussion on matters in the public interest.”

Summing up the discussion John Kampfner, Index on Censorship said “We have made it clear that libel reform is about active citizens, democracy at home, journalism here and abroad, and a stronger civil society. But we must remind ourselves that nothing has changed yet and the work is ahead of us to tell law makers all we have heard today.”

What should a defamation bill contain? And the statement to parliamentarians with full list of signatories is available to download from www.libelreform.org