English Libel laws: they matter to you too

Nov 14 2010 Published by under Cultural Observation, Politics

[I thought this was going to publish on Wednesday, but something happened. Dunno what]
In the last couple of years, the science establishment in the UK have been getting politically active. a lot of this was started by the British Chiropractic Association deciding to sue Simon Singh for libel after he wrote that the organisation "happily promotes bogus treatments".

Although that complaint was eventually dropped (and as a result of the action complaints made against a quarter of registered UK chiropracters), the threat of libel still remains.

Is this some minor issue of concern only for the English and Welsh who are unable to open their mouths without considering whether they'll put their foot in it? No, for several reasons.

free debate

First, the rules are heavily stacked in favour of the claimant: it is up to the defendant to demonstrate that there is no libel (e.g. that what they wrote was factually true: call someone a liar and you don't stand a chance, as you'll have to demonstrate that they knowingly spout falsehoods: you have to demonstrate their state of mind).

Second, even of you successfully defend yourself, you might not recover all of your legal costs. Matthias Rath tried to sue Ben Goldacre and The Guardian. He eventually fropped the case, but The Guardian never recovered its £175,000 in costs (hm, why do I have to reference everything so carefully when writing about libel?).

The effect of this is to create paranoia amongst professional journalists. There are, apparently, many stories out there that journalists won't dare touch for fear of libel. Newspapers will pass anything remotely controversial passed their lawyers: The Guardian even has a Night Lawyer on hand in case they're needed.

And this doesn't just affect professional writers. For example, Peter Wilmshurst is a cardiologist. He had some concerns about how the results of a trial he was involved in were being reported, and mentioned these to a reporter, and they were subsequently reported on a US website. The company who make the device being trialled sued, and just last week started suing Wilmhurst after he commented on the case - almost a year after he made these comments.

So, do you really want to pass anything you say through a British lawyer first?

Even the blogosphere isn't safe. Last year a blog post by Stephen Curry was taken down from Nature Network because of worries from their lawyers about libel. Presumably Nature Publishing Group has decent lawyers, so even though the post didn't seem particularly inflamatory, it must have stepped over the edge. This makes me wonder what proportion of science blogging is libellous under British law - people like PZed Myers and Orac would probably be in regular trouble if any of their regular targets decided to go for a bit of libel tourism to London.

Ah, but PZed and Orac are both based in the US, and blogging on a US platform you say. Well, that doesn't matter. It's enough that their work can be read in the UK. Even authors of books that aren't published abroad can be sued for libel in the UK: Rachel Ehrenfeld was sued because 23 copies of her US-published book were bought through UK booksellers.

People in the US do have some respite. Earlier this year, Barack Obama signed into law a bill that would make UK libel law virtually unenforceable in the US. Great - if someone successfully sues you for libel in the UK, you're fine. Until you want to visit the UK, or somewhere that will allow the UK to enforce their laws. Is Canada OK to visit?

Fortunately, most of us are sufficiently obscure that we're unlikely to be sued. But the threat is still there. Peter Wilmshurst wasn't exactly famous before NMT decided to sue him when he made public his concerns about their medical devices. And Simon Singh was only one of many science writers until the BCA dropped their bombshell. I think we should all be worried about English (and Welsh) libel laws.

The good news is that things may change. The British Government has made a commitment to draft a bill that will reform libel, but we need to make sure they'll follow through on this commitment. We can do this by giving them an enormous prod. There is a libel reform petition to be signed. The more people who sign it (over 50,000 so far) the better. We saw with the recent Science is Vital campaign that lobbying like this can be successful. If the government hears that we think the current law is a stupid ass (don't worry, laws don't have standing to sue. And asses feel no shame), they are more likely to act. Even if you're not in the UK it is important to sign - deep down all politicians want to be liked, and if they think the rest of the world despises UK law, they're more likely to be shamed into acting.

We must speak out to defend free speech. Please sign the petition for libel reform at http://www.libelreform.org/sign. Oh, and in the mean time try to write anything too unkind about anyone when blogging.

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