Campaigners call on the Minister to back urgent action on libel law reform

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Wednesday 9th November 2011

Hundreds of campaigners gathered in a crowded committee room in the House of Commons to tell parliamentarians that reform of the libel laws to protect public interest discussions can’t come soon enough.

Citizens Advice, Nature, Mumsnet, Liberty, Which?, The Publishers Association, Global Witness, Facebook, AOL and libel defendants Dr Simon Singh and Dr Peter Wilmshurst spoke with the Libel Reform Campaign to tell MPs that the laws allow the rich and powerful to bully critics into shutting down public debate. Richard Dunstan of Citizens Advice described threats they received trying to publish a report on “a secretive, exploitative and quite possibly illegal practice called `civil recovery’” and said “we need a clear and effective public interest defence.” Hosts of online discussions and social media sites told MPs the laws need to be modernised to accommodate the internet to prevent them becoming, as Rowan Davis of Mumsnet described, “tactical targets for those who wish to clamp down on criticism or investigation of their activities.” Campaigners were unanimous that libel reform needs urgent action. Dr Simon Singh said “people are still being threatened.”

Justice Minister Lord McNally announced that his department will publish a new Defamation Bill in January 2012. The Government brought forward a draft Defamation Bill last March which went through two public consultations and in October the Joint Committee set up to scrutinise the draft Bill published its recommendations. Lord McNally said the new Bill will respond to proposals from the public and the scrutiny committee and told campaigners to “keep campaigning until Spring to get it into the Queen’s Speech.”

Dr Julian Huppert MP, who hosted the event, said to do this we all need to write to our MPs to make sure they know how important this is. He addressed the dozens of parliamentarians at the meeting too, saying: “Too often we see parties trying to find nuanced differences: in this case, we need agreement. We can make sure this happens, and make sure it is passed. I will keep on working on this and hope you will all do too.”

The meeting was chaired by Dr Evan Harris, former Lib Dem MP, who pointed out the audience included Hardeep Singh, Dalia Nield, Professor David Colquhoun and many others who have been affected by the laws. He reminded us how far the campaign has come and urged everyone to push to get libel reform into the Queen’s Speech.

His comments were echoed by MPs and Peers:

Lord McNally, Minister of State for Justice said “You have fought a wonderful campaign. I can see some very influential parliamentarians from across the parties here...  Now comes the difficult bit. The campaign isn’t over.”

Shadow Justice Minister Andy Slaughter MP agreed that libel reform “needs action now. The campaign needs to press and press and press.”

Sir Peter Bottomley MP told the meeting libel reform must not be wrapped up with privacy and gagging legislation. He said “I would like to commend this campaign – not just those that are here, but those that are not.”

Tom Brake MP said: “I am pleased to hear that there will be a government response in the New Year. [The Government’s draft proposals] still need some fine tuning.”

Richard Dunstan, Social Policy Officer, Citizens Advice told MPs they spent an entire year’s research and campaign contingency budget to libel-proof a report on firms employed by High Street stores that it still can’t publish in full. “Current libel law makes it very easy to issue a libel action, and very expensive to defend one, even if it is without foundation. It is wrong that those engaging in scurrilous practices can, simply by throwing the L-word around, shut down criticism by those working in the public interest. We need a clear and effective public interest defence.”

On the same day that it found itself in the High Court in a libel action that has prevented it from discussing the behaviour of a journal editor for 2 years, Tim Appenzeller, Chief Magazine Editor of the scientific journal Nature told MPs they constantly have to self censor.  “Roughly five times a year we come across an important story we want to publish but when we weigh it against the risk of a libel action we don’t. We are asking for a broader public interest defence and a higher threshold for substantial harm.”

David Marshall, In-house lawyer, Which? magazine: “It is clear that the current position makes exploiting uncertainty and inequality of arms worth it for reputation management.”

Victoria Lustigman, Head of Communications, The Publishers Association: “Publishers are denied the right to be truly independent and speak out on matters in the public interest. Publishers are less likely to support projects in the public interest, and will not be prepared to defend libel threats.”

Charmian Gooch, Global Witness: “We publish detailed reports on a regular basis, and get regular threats. The rights of organisations to report on matters of serious public interest need to be protected. This is not a tabloid issue.”

Sophie Farthing, Policy Officer, Liberty: “Voices being silenced and organisations and individuals are not able to hold big businesses to account. As human rights campaigners it is great to hear that reform is on its way, and we would like to echo calls for a Defamation Bill in the Queen’s Speech.”

Individuals who have battled libel actions to defend their words told MPs of the costs of the laws. Dr Peter Wilmshurst who was sued by medical device company NMT Medical: “Patients have suffered because the draconian defamation laws were used to silence doctors with legitimate concerns about medical safety. ... It is hypocritical for parliamentarians to expect ordinary citizens to speak out on matters of public interest and safety, when they do not allow ordinary citizens the same protection that MPs reserve for themselves to protect them from misuse of the defamation law.”

Simon Singh, science writer and defendant in BCA v Singh spoke about how far we have come since the beginning of the campaign. “This has not gone away. People are still being threatened. In the last seven days we have heard about new cases: Nature, a blogger who wrote about a clinic charging patients for untested treatments, Citizens Advice...It’s scientists, consumers, mothers and patients who are being affected.”

Hosts of online discussions and social media sites told MPs the laws need to be modernised to accommodate the internet.

Rowan Davis, Mumsnet: “While the draft Defamation Bill was a very good start, it didn’t go far enough to protect freedom of expression, particularly in the online environment. Websites and hosts of user-generated comment risk becoming tactical targets for those who wish to clamp down on criticism or investigation of their activities.”

Richard Allan, Director of Policy, Europe, Facebook: “If the law is correct, online space is open for people to talk freely. If the law is wrong, spaces for open public discussion like ours get smaller.”

Lisa Fitzgerald, AOL (UK): “Current law requires clarity around who is and who is not a publisher in an online context. The current law discourages involvement and inhibits freedom of speech.”

Tracey Brown, Managing Director, Sense About Science: “Libel law is complicated, but the problem is quite simple. If we want to have a robust discussion about these matters of public interest, we must have a public interest defence.”

Jo Glanville, Index on Censorship: “All of you here are testament to the success and breadth of the campaign. We are close to the finish – we still have a big push to make it there. We need to drag libel law into the 21st century and make sure that it is fit for purpose.”

Jonathan Heawood, Director, English PEN: “Libel silences publishers, scientists and bloggers and at the same time does nothing on the side of the press. Neither side is effectively protected. Let’s all keep fighting. Let’s come back in a few months to celebrate.”

 

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Please write to your MP to tell them how important libel reform is to you.