Richard Dawkins to Speak at LibDem Conference on Libel Laws and Science.

richarddawkins This afternoon, Richard Dawkins will speak about the insidious nature of English Libel Laws as a guest speaker at the Liberal Democrats Conference in Bournemouth.

Professor Dawkins (along with me, coughs) was one of the first signatories to the campaign to keep libel laws out of science. This campaign was inspired by the rather shocking story of how science writer Simon Singh is being sued by the British Chiropractic Association after he wrote in the Guardian that the BCA were promoting chiropractic for common childhood complaints when there was no good evidence that these treatments were effective.

There is now a very compelling case that English libel laws are a fundamental threat to free speech in Britain and even the world. This is not just about science, although science might be hit particularly hard by these unjust laws.These laws prevent writers, whether in the mainstream media or eve non blogs, from voicing concerns and opinions where vested interests may want those opinions suppressed.

Richard Dawkins will say,

The effects of England’s libel laws are especially pernicious where science is concerned” and that action must be taken to stop the law being “ridiculed as an international charter for litigious mountebanks. I urge the Liberal Democrats to support the call for reform, and hope that Labour and the Conservatives will follow, so that we can get cross-party support on this vital issue.

The fundamental problem here is that a claimant in a libel case has a massive advantage. It does not matter if the writer has been thoroughly careful in checking what they have written and that what they write is demonstrably true. Even if they win the case, it can cost a huge amount of money to the defendant. If they lose, they will be financially ruined, even if the nature of the damages are small.

The government appear to be taking notice, but as Dawkins points out, cross party support for changes is important given that we can expect a general election soon. The case for change is overwhelming, but the best we can see at present is some preliminary discussion of changing the way that libel law can apply to online publications. In general, there is a time limit of a year for bringing a case after publication. However, each fresh ‘click’ or download is counted as a new publication effectively meaning there is no limit for liability for online publication.  This is an important concern, but minor compared with the gross injustice of the libel system. The system is fundamentally flawed and tinkering will not work.

Libel reform is important. Singh is being persecuted for daring to discuss matters of public health. The BCA could have simply published their own account and defended their actions in print. Instead, they chose to attempt to financially ruin a writer for criticising the approach to health. Far more worrying is how oil company Trafigura have tried to cover up an African pollution disaster by threatening any publication that dared to write about their business. They have now offered to pay compensation to 31,000 African people affected by their illegal dumping activities. People died and many more made ill. And anyone who wrote about it was threatened with legal action. The BBC reports,

It has until now denied compensation claims, and its lawyers repeatedly threatened anyone worldwide who sought to contradict its version. It launched a libel case against BBC Newsnight, forced an alleged correction from the Times, demanded the Guardian delete articles, and yesterday tried to gag journalists in the Netherlands and Norway with legal threats.

These threats tend to work in most cases.

The government have a chance to turn this around and make Britain a safe place to have full and frank debate about all manner of important issues, no matter what vested interests may be harmed. Instead, Britain can be viewed as a willing collaborator with rogues and charlatans, polluters and criminals, the rich and connected, against the writer and journalist, the activist and campaigner, the blogger and even twitterer. Free speech is reduced to a meaningless freedom as long as it does not effect business interests, political ambitions and dogmatic beliefs.

It is time for a change. It is time for us to be free from fear when voicing our concerns.


In the next day or so, I will be writing about how a UK healer has been threatening bloggers with claims for writing about them and the impact this has on honest debate.

6 Comments on Richard Dawkins to Speak at LibDem Conference on Libel Laws and Science.

  1. Ah, "mountebank". A splendid word that so perfectly describes the internet activities of certain proponents of CAM that I'm surprised it isn't used more often.

  2. Richard Dawkins is excellent, as usual. The only minus of this story is that LibDems have not the majority of votes in government. However one of key posts – the post of Minister of Science – is in their hands.
    Generally it would be great if the libel law is abolished by political way… 😉 I wish good luck to Dawkins. His initiative is good!

  3. And rather this way is only right, because juridical way (i.e. if "people of law" reform the libel law themselves, considering this law as obsolete) is unlikely to be possible, because legal system gains a profit, using this ancient law.
    But other question arises. Will the using of the instruments of inner policy sufficient for this? It is possible that British legal system is so rigid and corny, that the switch-over to international political level will be necessary to solve the libel law problem. I told once in JackofKent's blog, that Singh's case allows such possibility.

  4. Dawkins is trying to find a party to embrace Science. The Greens wont have him. The Conservatives like God too much. So it is either Liberal or Labour. 40 odd Liberal MPs supported a Homeopathy motion a while back (dont know the ref) so he has a bit of work to do with the Liberals.

  5. Bill Maher to receive the Richard Dawkins Award

    Thread about this here:

    People are suggesting questions to be asked of Dawkins and Maher at the event here: … s_some.php

    One of the best posts so far:

    To Dawkins:

    As many know, Simon Singh, a respected educator of the sciences, is currently facing legal battles in the UK from quacks. The scientific and rationalist societies rallied around him and launched a campaign against the bogus lawsuit. You, yourself, spoke in support of Simon calling him a "courageous hero" a few days ago ( … libel-laws ). Do you feel, then, it is appropriate to give the RDA to another staunch quack?

    I might nitpick and call Maher a quack promoter rather than a quack himself. But I agree that Maher sounds like a quack in his rants against "Western Medicine." He minimizes the role of infections and over-emphasizes diet and supplements as a means to prevent disease.

    I find it strange that Dawkins can over-look Maher's anti-science side. Religulous was funny, but not that funny.

    Please add your comments to the threads listed above, if you feel so moved.

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