In 2009 the government, courts and the police have connived in the suppression of investigative journalism and scientific research. But campaigns for free expression are gaining ground, says John Kampfner
This year saw the most sustained assault on free expression in the UK for two decades. In 1989, it was an externally generated threat, the fatwa declared against Salman Rushdie, that served to chill speech and thought. In 2009, the biggest threat to free expression in the UK came from our own establishment.
At various points in the year, the government, the courts and the police connived in the suppression of investigative journalism, scientific research and the reporting of human rights abuses. Libel legislation, the emerging privacy laws and the “super-injunction” were the weapons of choice in the battle to stifle debate and hide the truth.
Initially, MPs saw no need to intervene, defending a system that preserved the privilege of institutions such as the palace of Westminster. Robust journalism — holding truth to power — was deliberately conflated with tabloid intrusion. The scandal of MPs’ expenses reinforced their view that the media were out of control.
Matters suddenly changed in October when the assault on free speech reached the gates of parliament. The attempt by the law firm Carter-Ruck to prevent the Guardian from reporting a question from Paul Farrelly MP about the alleged dumping of toxic waste by the oil trading firm Trafigura was a direct challenge to the supremacy of the legislature.
Carter-Ruck was forced to back down, but the threat has not been seen off. It transpires that questions raised in parliament are, after all, not fully protected legally, making a mockery of an important part of the work of MPs.
Yet 2009 also witnessed the first co-ordinated and popular attempt to fight back. When Index on Censorship and English PEN launched their Libel Report in November, outlining 10 proposals for change, the response at home and abroad was astonishing. Two cases in particular stuck in the public consciousness: that of Simon Singh, a scientist who is being sued by the British Chiropractic Association; and Peter Wilmshurst, a cardiologist being taken to the English courts by an American company for remarks he made at a conference in the US. The latter has become another of those cases that highlights the absurdities of libel tourism, where the rich and powerful from overseas use the English courts to stifle free speech.
Index and PEN have since joined forces with the charity Sense About Science to launch a broader coalition. Stars such as Dara O’Briain and Alexei Sayle, MPs across all the main parties, lawyers and editors support the campaign.
Jack Straw, the justice secretary, has announced a working group to look at libel reform. Is this a classic attempt to kick the issue into the long grass? Many in the legal establishment are lobbying Straw to ensure it is. As for David Cameron’s Conservatives, the messages are similarly mixed. Yet pressure does work. In 2009, Straw repealed three ancient statutes on criminal defamation, seditious libel and obscene libel. Even by the embarrassing standards of the UK, these laws were hard to defend.
The libel reform campaign is not the only example of progress in adversity. The horror at the police tactics during the G20 protests in April led to a landmark report by the chief inspector of constabulary who condemned heavy-handed tactics, which he said infringe the right to free expression and protest.
In Northern Ireland in June, the Sunday Tribune correspondent Suzanne Breen won a major victory for the reporter’s right to protect sources. Breen came under pressure from police to reveal her sources within the Real IRA, which had contacted her to claim responsibility for killing two British soldiers. She successfully argued that revealing the sources would undermine her as a journalist and put her life in danger of revenge attacks from paramilitaries.
The courts themselves have come under attack from the government, with David Miliband doing his best to suppress information relating to the treatment of the former detainee Binyam Mohamed at the hands of UK and US intelligence services. The courts have six times rejected Foreign Office claims that the disclosure of documents in an open court would damage Britain’s relations with the US, a claim not even the US state department stands by. This week the case comes before the court yet again.
Despite reaching new lows in free expression in 2009, there might be grounds for optimism that, thanks to public pressure, politicians and lawyers are being shamed to concede just a little ground.
This article originally appeared in the Guardian