Rally for a public interest defence

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Discussions will be silenced until there’s a new public interest defence in the Defamation Bill, scientists, entertainers, authors, consumer champions and campaigners told Government today

Professor Brian Cox, Dara Ó Briain and Dave Gorman told the Minister that on the public interest “nothing has changed yet”

Wednesday 27th June 2012

Parliament today heard stories of suppressed debate in science, medicine, literature, consumer affairs and community forums at a packed meeting of the Libel Reform Campaign. Campaigners told Justice Minister Lord McNally that the Defamation Bill, which is currently going through the House of Commons, lacks an effective public interest defence and no action on corporations.

Dara and Brian with petition

Unless this is changed critical discussions will continue to be silenced. This week a young scientist was threatened with libel action by a private GP for comments he made after he reported her to the General Medical Council. Biochemist Stuart Jones reported Dr Myhill for putting patient safety at risk by promoting unproven treatments and tests and he wrote about his complaint on the Bad Science website.

After the meeting Professor Brian Cox, Dara Ó Briain and Dave Gorman presented a petition with over 60,000 signatures to Downing Street alongside representatives from Index on Censorship, Sense About Science and English PEN. Read Dave's blog about the day here, and a poem on libel reform by Sue Guiney here.

Supporters in committee room 11Stuart Jones: “To receive a letter in the post threatening you with bankruptcy is genuinely terrifying. Now, regardless of the outcome of my case, I will forever be afraid of speaking out. Ultimately it’s patients and vulnerable members of the public who suffer, which makes you wonder who Britain’s libel laws are actually protecting.”

Katie O’Donovan, Mumsnet.com: “Parents come to our site to criticize, explain and debate. They need to know they can continue these discussions without the threat of libel action.”

Tim Appenzeller, magazine editor Nature: “A strengthened public interest defence would allow us to balance the needs of individual scientists whose work has been questioned with those of other scientists and the public in open discussion.”

Ben Goldacre speaking Kate Briscoe, Legal Beagle, a website that offers free legal advice on consumer issues and handling debt, told us about libel threats to consumer groups for writing about firms employed by high street companies to sue alleged shoplifters, including people with dementia and parents returning goods picked up by toddlers, for over £100 in compensation: “We want to expose the intimidation and threats for what they are. In doing so we hope to inspire and encourage other consumer groups to stand up. We need a public interest defence.”

Kamila Shamsie, author: “It isn’t only science but culture that is affected by libel laws. It’s the newer voices, the quieter voices, the more experimental voices who find themselves shut out.”

David Marshall, In-house lawyer, Which?: “Corporations are commonly using libel as a form of reputation management, as they might use a press release.”

Dr Peter Wilmshurst, defendant in NMT Medical v Wilmshurst: “The real cost here is to patients who continued to have NMT devices put into them during the 4 years of my case.  Some needed additional corrective procedures and at least one has died as a result. Some of these problems may have occurred because doctors continued to use the devices unaware that others with concerns had been successfully silenced. This is why we need a real public interest defence.”

Dr Ben Goldacre: “Do you want scientists and medics to speak up when they see someone doing wrong, or do you want them to shut up?”

Professor Brian Cox: “Our society is based on the principle of science, and specifically scientific methods. Th is means free and open discussion of evidence. It shouldn’t be the case that that these discussions – that is to say the core of our scientific society – only happen in peer-reviewed journals. Why isn’t this protection extended to members of the public?”

Dave Gorman speaking Dara Ó Briain: “The Reynolds defence deals with a 10-point plan for journalists. It doesn’t apply to Mumsnet, to Which?, to patient groups and online forums: it doesn’t apply to the way public debates happen now.”

Dave Gorman: “Libel is used by rich people in a game of poker to get poor people to go ‘all in’. What we haven’t heard about are the tens, hundreds, thousands of cases that didn’t go to court because they were silenced: it’s these cases we haven’t heard about that are even more important.”

Minister of State for Justice Lord McNally: “Listening today it is quite clear you do not think the balance on public interest defence is right. Certainly that is still to play for, both in the House of Commons and the House of Lords. Remember what we have now for the first time in twenty years is a Defamation Bill before Parliament. Don’t be pessimistic:  what you have achieved so far is remarkable.”

Robert Flello MP, Shadow Minister for Justice: “The principle of defamation reform is agreed – not codification, reform. There is so much that needs to be improved; set ting Reynolds defence in statute is behind even current case law. We have a job to do over the summer: we hav e to convince the Government that the Bill is a good start but som e serio us amendments are needed.”

The panelChi Onwarah MP, S hadow Minister for Science and Innovation:  “Science advances through free exchange and questioning and our legal system needs to protect that.”

Simon Hughes MP: “The Committee has flagged up issues where more work needs to be done. This is a fantastic opportunity to take the libel laws of yesteryear into a modern, democratic system.”

David Davis MP: “Why should MPs have privilege to discuss evidence without fear of a libel action but not scientists? What we are after is to extend parliamentar y privilege to those who offer a w ell-reasoned contribution to public discourse. We have achieved the headline but we haven’t explained to the Government which will be the conseq uences if they don’t make these changes”

Andy Slau ghter MP: “Please don’t forget this issue. We need not to have people’s lives ruined by speaking the truth and doing their job.”

Paul Farrelly MP: “It is because of the experiences of Peter Wilmshurst, Simon Singh, Ben Goldacre and others, and because of the support of the Libel Reform Campaign, that the Bill is making some progress.”

Supporters in committee room 11 2Tracey Brown, Sense About Science: “The outpouring of public support got us into a position at the last General Election where all 3 main parties had libel reform in their manifestos. While the libel laws are complicated the issues aren’t: do we want a society where people don’t speak out, or one where free and open discussion is possible? What we have is a democratic deficit. What we need now is political will.”

Kirsty Hughes, Index on Censorship: “There are two big issues the bill must change: we need a proper public interest defence without which open scientific and political debate risks remaining seriously constrained. There’s also huge public support for a bar on corporations suing individuals for libel. Yet, the government has ignored repeated calls from two parliamentary committees for a higher hurdle before corporations can sue. There’s still time to get this right and protect ordinary citizens from corporations some of whom see libel claims as part of their marketing budget to defend their brands.”

Dr Evan Harris, Policy Advisor to the Libel Reform Campaign: “It is sad to see parliamentary time being spent on a bill which so far fails to live up to the promises made to deliver effective libel reform made in all three of the party's manifestos.”

Many thanks to Della Thomas for photography.

The Politics Show, BBC  Defamation Bill: Prof Brian Cox on libel law changes

Channel 4 news Dara Ó Briain on libel reform

Brian Cox to hand libel petition to Downing Street Telegraph

Libel reform campaigners demand better public interest defence Guardian

Libel laws: I could still be sued and lose everything Amanda Craig, Telegraph

Libel reform comes around less often than Halley's comet. Let's get it right Guardian

Campaigners call for wider libel reform Nature

Libel reform needs to keep writers out of court, not make it easier to win once they're there. New Statesman