This article was originally published on Comment is Free
The possibility of reform of our unjust libel laws appears to be
growing. On Monday, the Guardian reported that Jack Straw was hoping to push through the findings of the working party on libel reform, set to convene next month, before the next general election. Straw, according to the Guardian’s Patrick Wintour, “is determined to leave office with a reputation as a reforming secretary of state”.
The practical solutions suggested by the Free Speech is Not For Sale report compiled by Index on Censorship and English PEN will now be considered by the working party, which is welcome news. In January we also await the findings of the Culture Media and Sport Select
Committee inquiry into privacy and libel, and hope that the talented Chair John Whittingdale MP produces a work that takes seriously the chilling effect our libel laws have.
The cases highlighted by the Libel Reform Campaign should add greater
force to any reforming impulse Straw may feel. The cases of Simon Singh and Peter Wilmshurst have highlighted the actual dangers that suppression of free expression through the courts can present to the public. As Bad Science author Ben Goldacre puts it, any law that stifles critical appraisal is a danger to patients and the public. Most recently, Danish radiologist Henrik Thomsen has spoken of his fears of discussing the findings of his work after a subsidiary of General Electric claimed he had defamed it by raising concerns about a product.
(Interesting to note, incidentally, that Thomsen is represented in the
UK by notorious libel solicitors Carter-Ruck. While we may be inclined
to blame individual firms or judges for the disgraceful state of
English free expression, the fact is that these are mere players in a
system that is rotten).
The campaigning done by Index on Censorship, English PEN and Sense
about Science under the banner of the Libel Reform Coalition has led
over 11,000 people to sign our petition and MPs to receive 7,000
letters and emails in just a few weeks. But whilst this support is
gratifying, we must remain conscious that we are probably in this for
the long haul. While Straw suggested in an interview with the New Statesman in early December that he would attempt to address some reforms through secondary legislation, it is likely that not all the changes necessary can be achieved in this manner (particularly the establishment of libel tribunals). The reforms may demand new primary legislation, and supporters of the campaign have an opportunity to shape this. As blogger Jack of Kent has pointed out, “To ensure the best possible Defamation Act 2011 or 2012, it is important not just for you to support this campaign today or tomorrow, but for you to engage with it on an ongoing basis.”
David Cameron is considering libel reform seriously. We must now ensure that all the major parties realise the importance of this issue as they write their manifestos for the coming election. Reform of our iniquitous and unfair defamation laws would be a popular, necessary and achievable move for any politician. Jack Straw must be applauded for at least taking notice of the clamour for change. He and his counterparts in the other parties must now make their positions clear through manifesto pledges, and follow through on those pledges in the months and years to come. And we the electorate have a responsibility to keep them to any promises made.