Victory for free speech as libel bill passes
Changes are being made to England's defamation law after a three-and-a-half-year campaign, writes Padraig Reidy
24 Apr 13

Changes will be made to England’s defamation law after a three-and-a-half-year campaign, writes Padraig Reidy

Today, 24 April, saw history made. The UK parliament has passed a new Defamation Bill, which will now go on to Royal Assent. A major victory against censorship in Britain and beyond has been won, with England’s notorious libel laws changed in favour of free speech.

The creation of this new law has not been an easy process. The Libel Reform Campaign launched on 9 December 2009, bringing together Index on Censorship, English PEN and Sense About Science. We had all identified a simple problem: English libel laws were silencing legitimate criticism and debate — not just in the UK but internationally. London’s High Court was seen as the place to come to silence opponents and critics, whether you were a South African snake-oil salesman or a Saudi sheikh.

Each organisation had already been alarmed by the use of libel laws in England and Wales to silence free speech.

The movement galvanised around the case of Simon Singh vs the British Chiropractic Association. This case, involving the popular science writer’s critique of what he now famously described as the “bogus” claims of alternative medicine, brought the UK’s energetic sceptic community into the fold. Over 100 civil society groups signed up. Novelists, journalists, lawyers and comics — especially comics — also joined. At the same time, English PEN and Index on Censorship had been working on a year-long study on the effects of English libel law on chilling free speech at home and across the globe. The Free Speech For Sale report kicked off a national debate on the impact of these archaic laws.

In March 2010, some of the biggest names in comedy, including Shappi Khorsandi, Tim Minchin and Dara Ó Briain gave their time to perform at the Big Libel Gig fundraiser in London.

An awful lot has happened since that benefit gig. Sheikh Khalid Bin Mahfouz, a serial libel tourist, has died. Mr Justice Eady, the High Court judge at the centre of some of the most contentious libel cases of recent times, has retired. Barack Obama signed the SPEECH Act, a US law specifically designed to protect Americans from London libel rulings. And the Chiropractics lost their case against Singh.

But what did not change was the remarkable loyal support of the thousands of libel reform supporters at home and abroad.

In advance of the 2010 UK election, tens of thousands of people wrote to their MPs telling them to support reform of the libel laws. As a result, all three main parties in the UK pledged to change the law.

When the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government was formed by David Cameron and Nick Clegg after that election, a new defamation bill was one of the few issues both parties agreed on.

It would have been easy then for the 60,000 libel reform supporters to feel that their job had been done, and that now it could be left to the politicians.

But this never happened. Every time there was even a slightest threat to the process of reform, supporters mobilised, often without prompting.

The Libel Reform campaign can be seen, perhaps, as the first successful political campaign of the social media age. Bloggers and tweeters got involved and stayed involved. The #LibelReform hashtag was never dormant.

It was also a good example of parliamentary policy making. Though at times progress seemed slow, the bill went through rounds of scrutiny in an open and transparent manner, with politicians (for the most part!) working together for the common good.

The new law protects free speech. There is a hurdle to stop vexatious cases. We now have a bar on libel tourism so non-EU claimants will now need to prove that harm has been done here. For the first time there will be a statutory public interest defence that will ask defendants to prove they have acted “reasonably” (a better test than the more burdensome Reynold’s test of responsible publication). There is also a hurdle to stop corporations from suing unless they can prove financial harm.

The fight for free speech continues, but today Index would like to thank our partners and supporters for what has been an incredible three-and-a-half-year adventure.

Padraig Reidy is Senior Writer at Index on Censorship. @mePadraigReidy

By Padraig Reidy

Padraig Reidy is the editor of Little Atoms and a columnist for Index on Censorship. He has also written for The Observer, The Guardian, and The Irish Times.