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.