Sense about Science ? equipping people to make sense of science and evidence
News and Comment
Scrutiny committee of the draft defamation bill report today
19 October 2011The Parliamentary Committee set up to scrutinise the government's draft defamation bill publishes its report today.
- The Joint Scrutiny Committee's report urges the government to strengthen the draft defamation bill in line with many of the proposals from the Libel Reform Campaign
- Report by a group of influential MPs and Peers on the Joint Scrutiny Committee on the draft defamation bill is “yet another powerful voice for reform” alongside public figures and 60 organisations, President Obama, the UN Human Rights Committee, the coalition government and official opposition.
The Libel Reform Campaign led by English PEN, Index on Censorship and Sense About Science calls for the government to legislate now and welcomed the Joint Committee’s recognition that the laws need “rebalancing”. The committee accepted the campaign’s call for restrictions on the automatic right for corporations to sue; that actions ought only to be brought where there is ‘serious and substantial’ harm; and that the government need to tackle the length and expense of libel actions through mediation and Early Neutral Evaluation. The committee is the latest body to support reform.
Over 50,000 people have signed the Libel Reform Campaign’s call for a government bill to reform English libel law, at the last election all three main parties made manifesto pledges to change the law and in May 2010 a commitment to reform became part of the coalition agreement.
The committee has made a number of recommendations in line with the Libel Reform Campaign’s proposals namely:
The committee accepted the Libel Reform Campaign’s concerns over the imbalance of resources between individuals and well-resourced corporations and the “chilling effect” on free speech of libel claims from companies. Their proposals aim to introduce a new hurdle to make it more difficult for companies to use their financial muscle and the threat of court action to silence critics, which may reduce the problem.
Serious and substantial harm
The campaign argued that clause 1 of the government’s draft defamation bill should be strengthened to strike out claims for damage that are neither serious nor substantial and does not offer any real prospect of vindication. The committee accepted this stating that a revised clause 1 would: “ensure that trivial cases are weeded out at an early stage by introducing a stricter test for determining whether a case is serious enough to go to court.”
Public interest defence
The committee recognised problems with the current public interest defence and noted there was “universal support” for a dedicated defence. Whilst the committee made proposals to strengthen the defence in the government’s draft defamation bill, the campaign believes more should be done to ensure that the defence is robust and accessible.
Our campaign developed proposals for a court-based take-down procedure to prevent extra-judicial censorship by threats to ISPs and web hosts: a variant of this scheme has been proposed by the committee.
Reducing the cost of libel cases
Libel cases in England and Wales have been estimated to cost 140 times the European average. The committee has been explicit in its criticism of the government for not doing enough to reduce costs. In line with our Alternative Libel Project, the committee has told the government to ensure disputes are resolved rapidly by mediation or arbitration such as Early Neutral Evaluation.
Jonathan Heawood, Director, English PEN: “This is yet another powerful voice for reform of our archaic libel laws. When President Obama acted to protect Americans from unfair libel judgements in the UK, it was a national humiliation. With this report we finally have cross-party consensus on the detail of how to reform the law. The government must act now.”
John Kampfner, Chief Executive, Index on Censorship: “In the last decade, journalists have been hampered from exposing those with power because of our restrictive libel laws. With media reform high on the agenda, the government must include the defamation bill in the next Queen’s speech.”
Tracey Brown, Managing Director, Sense About Science: “Scientists are being dragged through the courts for discussing evidence. This report adds to the case that our libel laws are stifling open science. We need to see a Bill that has high thresholds for bringing a case, a clear public interest defence and equality of arms in the courtroom, and that can't come soon enough.”
Simon Singh, science writer and defendant in BCA v Singh: “Many doctors, scientists, academics and journalists (like myself) have suffered at the hands of English libel law. We have lost money, had our careers disrupted and had severe stress put on our family lives for one, two or more years, and just because we were raising serious concerns about matters of genuine public interest. And the problem continues, with libel threats and actions continuing to silence honest criticism. The Government not only needs to heed the Joint Committee report, but it also needs to act urgently and pass an effective defamation bill at the first available opportunity, as promised in their manifestos. We urgently need a libel law that balances the right to reputation with the right to free speech.”
Dr Evan Harris, policy advisor to the Libel Reform Campaign: “The lack of proper public interest defence in the draft bill and this report, is a real barrier to necessary reform. All sides in the Leveson Inquiry into the phone-hacking scandal have accepted that a new public interest defence for investigative and other public interest publications is needed to nurture the best of British journalism, but the draft bill merely codifies the existing inadequate defence and the Joint Committee recommends complicating it further.”
Justine Roberts, Co-Founder and CEO, Mumsnet: “While the draft defamation bill was a very good start, it didn’t go far enough to protect freedom of expression, particularly in the online environment. Websites and hosts of user-generated comment risk becoming tactical targets for those who wish to clamp down on criticism or investigation of their activities. For the health of public debate in this country, it’s crucial that the government continues to pursue this issue actively, rather than kicking it into the long grass. We hope that the committee’s report will provide an opportunity for the serious attention that this issue deserves.”
Bob Satchwell, Executive Director, Society of Editors: “Both the last Labour government and the current coalition understand and accept the powerful case for reform and changes in the crippling costs regime that stifle scientific debate and journalistic investigation. The argument is overwhelming for the long overdue replacement of laws that put academics, scientists and the media at unacceptable risk and undermine freedom of expression. While the fine detail may require more work what is vitally important is that libel reform is pressed ahead with urgency.”
Philip Campbell PhD, Editor-in-Chief, Nature: “It’s essential to the public trust in science that scientific integrity is upheld and that bad behaviour is brought to light. Nature has a strong track record in these respects. Even so, we are hindered from doing proper justice to this task, and to the innocent researchers who get caught up in cases of misconduct, because of the unreasonable burdens placed on us by the English libel laws. It is unquestionably in the public interest that the legislation should be urgently revised to achieve a better balance of interests between those accused of misconduct and those who should be better able to write about them.”
Nicholas Lansman, Secretary General, Internet Service Providers Association: “ISPA believes that the current regulatory framework for libel law insufficiently addresses the way content is published and conveyed in the digital environment. We urge Government to adopt a court based system that provides clarity to all parties involved and believe that a failure to provide a clear and workable regulatory framework for online content will not only have a chilling effect on freedom of speech, but will also undermine any efforts to protect robust scientific and academic debate more effectively.”
Colin Blakemore FMedSci FRS, Professor of Neuroscience, University of Oxford and President, Association of British Science Writers: “Every day we hear of new examples of libel law being used to stifle the efforts of individual scientists and journalists to protect the public by questioning false or unsubstantiated claims. After years of debate, consultation and widespread support, the government now has an opportunity to change Britain’s tarnished libel laws. In a country that prides itself on openness, accountability and the use of evidence, it is a disgrace that the law can be used to suppress public challenge and debate. We must seize this historic opportunity for Britain, so powerful an advocate of freedom of speech in the rest of the world, to put its own house in order.”
Charmian Gooch, Director, Global Witness: “There is an urgent need for the reform of the currently oppressive UK libel law to progress without delay. The chilling effect of the present libel regime means that there is a very real risk that the public is losing out as more and more important public interest stories may remain unpublished. It is vital that the UK libel laws encourage rather than deter public interest reporting in order to ensure that corrupt and abusive practices which may have occurred under the radar are exposed and addressed. The current libel law system severely undermines freedom of expression to the detriment of the citizens of every country in the world.”
Richard Mollet, Chief Executive, The Publishers Association: “Reform of our current defamation laws is absolutely essential if we are to enhance freedoms of expression and publication in this country. Now that the first crucial steps have been taken to advance libel reform, we urge Government to continue its progress and push for coherent legislation as soon as possible.”
Patrick Robinson, Director Public Policy, Yahoo!: “The UK’s libel laws exist in a timewarp that ignores the reality of today’s 21st century global, digital, user-generated, instant interactive communications landscape. Companies like Yahoo! are publishers of our own content – but we are also online intermediaries, providing tools and platforms for people to express themselves freely and openly: instant messaging, photo-sharing, comment boards, e-communities and blogs. Our current laws don’t provide clarity about where liability for this kind of user generated content sits, and online intermediaries often find themselves forced to limit, rather than promote, free expression by their users in order to avoid legal problems. The online world is moving faster and faster each day. The time to reform our libel laws for the future is now.”
Peter Noorlander, Legal Director, Media Legal Defence Initiative: “As long as the law remains what it is, it is still too easy for claimants to bring a case and far too hard – and, importantly, too expensive – for a publisher to defend themselves. This skews the law in favour of claimants and ultimately harms the right of the public at large to be informed on matters of public interest. We’re already seeing instances where local and regional magazines don’t run stories they know they can defend purely because of the cost of defending them should they be sued. Or when they do publish, they’re forced to apologise and retract – just because they cannot afford to fight. We’re also continuing to see international claimants trying their luck in the London courts; the latest example being Saudi national Sheikh Al Amoudi who got a £175,000 libel judgment against a website run by Ethiopian exiles in New York. Clearly none of this is in the public interest and the law simply must be reformed.”
The political significance of the report
All three major political parties supported libel reform in their general election manifestos.
Libel reform was a significant commitment within the coalition agreement.
The Joint Select Committee has subjected the government’s bill to cross-party pre-legislative scrutiny.
The Ministry of Justice will publish the responses to their consultation on the draft defamation bill later this month and is expected to respond to the committee's report within six weeks.
The Libel Reform Campaign has called for the defamation bill to be written into the next Queen’s speech.