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Justice Minister tells campaigners libel law “is not fit for purpose”

One year on from the launch of the Libel Reform Campaign, the pressure for change is mounting with figures from publishers' survey

Justice Minister Lord McNally has recognised that “English libel law is not fit for purpose”, as more information has come to light about the negative impact of English libel law on publishing, scientific and medical journals.

Last night at the 1st anniversary of the Libel Reform Campaign it was revealed for the first time that:

  • Scientific journal editors in all subject areas have been threatened with libel. 32% of medical and scientific editors say their journal has been threatened with libel action.
  • Scientific editors modify papers before publication. 44% of editors have asked for changes to the way papers or articles are written to protect themselves from a libel action
  • Publishers refuse to publish some work for fear of libel action. A third have refused work from authors for fear of libel action.

At the event Jonathan Heawood of English PEN, John Kampfner of Index on Censorship and Tracey Brown of Sense About Science joined Richard Allan of Facebook and Emily Cleevely of the Publishers Association to mark the anniversary of the Libel Reform Campaign along with hundreds of supporters. They asked the Minister for Justice Lord McNally what the Government is committed to doing about libel reform in its draft defamation bill, due in the New Year.

See photos from the event

Minister for Justice Lord McNally told the audience that “in its current state, English libel law is not fit for purpose” and getting it right would be one of the things on which he would measure his ministerial career. He said: “The Government values the contribution the Libel Reform Campaign has already made to raising awareness of the need for a fresh look at defamation laws in England and Wales. We agree the law needs reforming and have been working on a draft Defamation Bill, which we hope to publish and put out for consultation in March”.

Jonathan Heawood, Director, English PEN: “In a year’s hard campaigning we’ve gathered a huge amount of support - but the law has still not changed. We are looking to the Government to produce a Bill that protects the public interest and recognises our changed media environment. We are committed to upholding free speech, reputation and access to justice - we just hope that the Government is too.”

Tracey Brown, Managing Director, Sense About Science: “A year ago a lot of people said that libel laws are too complex, that we were too small to stand up to vested interests and that the Government was not interested in change. Well, this complex law becomes very clear when viewed from the citizen’s perspective. And being small has helped us to tell the story of the effects of the laws on the small people and organisations. And when small people speak truth to power things can change.”

John Kampfner, Chief Executive, Index on Censorship: “The Libel Reform Campaign has put free expression at the very heart of politics. Our representatives at Westminster were unable to ignore the passion for reform expressed not just by organizations such as Index, but the many thousands who wrote to their MPs and challenged politicians on the doorstep. The campaign has been a remarkable example of democracy in action. Now the Government must deliver the reform in favour of free speech so many have called for.”

Simon Singh: “In the last twelve months, some libel cases have come to an end and some new ones have emerged, but one thing that remains unchanged is the obviously unfair libel law itself. Libel law is still hostile to free speech and overly friendly towards those powerful corporations that want to silence critics. I think it is fair to say that authors and scientists who have been victims of libel all welcome the Governments positive steps in recent months, and we hope that the coalition will rebalance the law and deliver genuine libel reform in the months ahead.”

Dr Evan Harris, who helped create the Libel Reform Coalition: “I look back with a real sense of achievement on being the original parliamentary lead for the Libel Reform Coalition. The Index/PEN ‘Free Speech is not For Sale’ report was a key piece of work and their link up with Sense About Science with its Keep Libel Laws out of Science campaign has created a powerful cross-cultural call for reform. We achieved our initial aim of getting manifesto commitments for libel law reform from all the parties and a commitment by the Government to legislation. But we must now redouble our efforts to ensure the law change achieves the aim of securing more free expression and less chill of valid criticism.”

Last night’s One Year On event followed weeks of further revelations of the impacts of the libel laws

  • Plastic surgeon Dr Dalia Nield was threatened with libel action by the manufacturer of a ‘Boob Job’ cream for saying she had concerns about the product’s safety.
  • A survey of bloggers and online forum hosts found that bloggers are particularly affected by the libel laws as they work without the support of a large company so suffer an inequality of arms, particularly where they are writing about companies, institutions and products.
  • Facebook, Yahoo!, AOL (UK), Mumsnet and the Internet Service Providers Association wrote to Prime Minister David Cameron to tell him that the current laws make ISPs liable for content hosted on them and this means online material can get taken down in response to a threat when there may be nothing defamatory about it.
  • David Davis MP in a debate on the libel laws told the House of Commons that Britain has “failed to defend one of our nation’s primary virtues-free speech. We have also failed in the duty to protect the weak and vulnerable from the rich and powerful.”

Last night the Minister heard preliminary results from two new surveys of scientific and medical journal editors and of general publishers (see below).  These are the results:

Scientific journal editors in all subject areas have been threatened with libel. 32% of medical and scientific editors say their journal has been threatened with libel action.

Scientific editors modify papers before publication. 44% of editors have asked for changes to the way papers or articles are written to protect themselves from a libel action.

Scientific editors in all subject areas have refused work for fear of libel action. 38% of editors have chosen not to publish certain articles because of a perceived risk of libel action, for example about controversial subjects or concerning particular people or companies.

Publishers modify content to avoid a libel action. 100% of respondents to the survey of publishers said that they have modified content or language of a book before publication to avoid the risks presented by current UK libel laws.

Publishers refuse to publish some work for fear of libel action. A third have refused work from authors for fear of libel action.

Publishers withdraw publications after threats. Almost 43% of respondents have withdrawn a publication as a result of threatened libel action.

The full results of these two surveys will be announced in 2011.

Richard Mollet, CEO of the Publishers Association said: “The Publishers Association has been campaigning for libel reform for many years and is concerned about the chilling effect which the current law has on freedom of expression.  The results from our survey demonstrate that libel law as it currently stands is a huge burden to many publishers in the UK and may act as an obstacle to growth, innovation and freedom of expression within the sector.”