Libel law reflects a balance between the right of the public to information and the right to legal redress against damage to a person’s reputation. That balance has been badly skewed by the idiosyncrasies of the English system. Index on Censorship, the free-speech pressure group, and English PEN, the writers’ organisation, recently called for reforms of libel law, including a ban on cases being heard in London unless at least 10 per cent of the offending publication’s circulation is in the UK.
That is a simple, costless and urgent reform. It would remove a deterrent to free speech and encourage a culture of inquiry. Most important, it would restore the reputation of British justice in the eyes of a sceptical world. It is about time.
The paper also carries a story today on Peter Wilmshurst, the latest scientific writer to become a victim of libel tourism. Wilmshurt’s solicitor, Mark Lewis, who spoke eloquently at the launch of the campaign, says this:
Mr Lewis said: “There is a reason not to settle, which is that this case is of wider interest for all scientists, and for the public who relies on them to assess medical research.”
Libel law, Mr Lewis said, was having “not so much a chilling effect as a killing effect” on scientific debate, by making researchers think twice before challenging findings with which they disagreed.