Why the UK libel laws are in serious need of reform.
The Big Libel Gig held in London on 14th March was far more than just a good laugh. It made me realise that anyone of us who, I don’t know, wish to pursue a career maybe in journalism, or science, or politics, or comedy, or public speaking, or even anyone who has a blog, or believes they have the right to freedom of speech, should really know a heck of a lot more about the libel laws in this country and the impact they can have on an individual before we go on to join the ‘real world’. The show was put together by the brilliant mind of comedian Robin Ince to promote the campaign for libel law reform in the UK. It comprised of some of the UK’s top comedians as well as some of the most brilliant minds in science and debate. Some of those present included, Marcus Brigstocke, Dara Ó Briain, Tim Minchin, Ed Byrne, Shappi Khorsandi, Professor Brian Cox, Professor Richard Wiseman, Dr Peter Wilmshurst , Simon Singh, who himself is currently involved in a libel case and Dr Ben Goldacre, who has also had firsthand experience of the libel law in the UK.
Why is there a libel law?
Well in short, the libel law is there to protect the reputation of an individual from an unjustified verbal attack, whilst maintaining the balance between this and the right of freedom of speech. What makes a comment be deemed as defamatory by law is any statement in a publication that could expose an individual to hatred or ridicule, cause them to be shunned, lower that person in the estimation of the minds of any ‘right thinking’ members of society, or disparage them in their line of work.
Evidently this is a very important law, which has been put in place for the protection of a person or peoples reputation, and I should make it very clear now that the libel reform campaign has no intention at all of abolishing the law. Quite the opposite, they wish to make the system fairer and it is hoped that the campaign will bring about much needed changes to the way the law works in the UK. For example, under the current system it is possible even for people ‘accused of funding terrorism’ to be supported by the law in order to silence those who oppose them. Super injunctions mean that most of these cases are not even able to be made available to the public. There are many other aspects of the law that make its current use and application within the high court’s of the UK laughable in comparison to other countries. To illustrate the impact the current law can have let me outline the case of Simon Singh. It is this case that has really brought the need for reform into the public spotlight, the charity Sense for Science launched the petition for libel reform based on this case, and it was Simon Singh and others like him who were being personally supported by the acts who performed at the Big Libel Gig.
In 2008 journalist and author, Simon Singh published an article in the Guardian about chiropractic treatment, in which he made reference to the British Chiropractic Association. Whilst describing the BCA’s claims about the treatments of some childhood ailments, Singh wrote that ‘even though there is not a jot of evidence ‘the BCA’ happily promotes bogus treatments’. Simon is now being sued under the libel law by the BCA for expressing his scientific opinion about their claims. It has been decided that this opinion was actually ‘written as a statement of facts’, which therefore would imply that the BCA are being dishonest, even though this was never Simon Singh’s intention. It is interesting to note that it is Simon who is personally being sued in this case, and not the Guardian who published the article. The repercussions of this case if Singh loses are undoubtedly highly significant. Richard Dawkins has stated that in this eventuality there would be ‘major implications on the freedom of scientists, researchers and other commentators to engage in robust criticism of scientific, and pseudoscientific, work’, I would argue that all libel cases in the last few years must have had these same implications and they will continue only to get worse if reform does not occur.
It is not just the case of Simon Singh that is of importance, there are several current libel cases that are in a very similar vein to his, as well as a large amount from the past that have had positive and not so positive outcomes. To find out more about these and more details of the campaign visit the libel reform website at www.libelreform.org. Here you can find some of the proposed changes that this campaign seeks to implement over time. Below are a selection from the ten main findings of their report along with their suggestions for reform.
- In libel, the defendant is guilty until proven innocent.
Recommend: Require the claimant to demonstrate damage and falsity
- English libel law is more about making money than saving a reputation.
Recommend: Cap damages at £10,000
- London has become an international libel tribunal.
Recommend: No case should be heard in this jurisdiction unless at least 10 per cent of copies of the relevant publication have been circulated here
- There is no robust public interest defence in libel law.
Recommend: Strengthen the public interest defence
- Comment is not free.
Recommend: Expand the definition of fair comment
insurance premiums non-recoverable
- The law does not reflect the arrival of the internet.
Recommend: Exempt interactive online services and interactive chat from liability
Whilst I know this all sounds very complicated and dull the point of the Big Libel Gig itself was to bring together a smorgasbord of talent and opinion, and brains to make the issue more accessible, and that it did. Robin Ince acted like a delightful glue holding the acts together, introducing each with an appropriate amount of admiration and mirth all evening. Understandably some of the comedians tended to focus on issues that skirted around the edge of the actual matter at hand, such as Marcus Brigstoke focusing mainly on the downfall of social communication since the advent of the iPhone. Comparing the relationship with his friends who have iPhones to the same sort of relationship a family member has with a loved one with alzehiemers: ‘they’re physically present, you can still see them and touch them, but yet they are somehow absent’! Shappi Khorsandi later shocked the crowed by announcing she was getting divorced, and she joked that it was because her husband was having an affair with his iPhone! Ed Byrne similarly admitted to knowing little about the details of the issue of libel reform (then again, how many of us can say we completely get it either?) but he did stress that in his opinion it seems wrong that a scientist wasn’t able to give his scientific opinion about something that has little or no evidence without fear of prosecution. Tim Minchin, who is always a crowd pleaser, performed his nine minute beat poem ‘Storm’, which is a beautifully constructed attack on alternative medicine relayed through the medium of song, and I recommend to anyone who’s never heard it to get on YouTube right now! (Well once you’ve done reading).
Simon Singh armed with a PowerPoint presentation involving graphs and figures, came on to discuss briefly his own experiences before revealing the exponential difference in costs of libel cases in the UK compared with other European countries, anywhere up to 140 times more expensive on average! Professor Brian Cox wowed the crowd with deep space photographs of the known universe, whilst reeling of fact after incredible fact that caused mini explosions to go off in our heads as we combined what he was saying with the immensity of the images on the screen in front of us. Whilst moral support for Simon was raised by a ‘Simon Singh sing a long’, featuring another appearance from Mr Minchin who walked over to the mic, another glass of wine in hand, to utter the word ‘Struth’, as only an Australian can.
The case of Dr Peter Wilmshurst, was also presented as he was interviewed on stage about the impact his ongoing libel case has had on his family and work life. Dr Wilmshurt is being sued in London, by a US company over comments he made to an US journalist working for a US publication about a US trial he was involved in. This form of ‘Libel Tourism’ is also another major issue needing to be resolved. A hard act to follow was Dr Ben Goldacre, there was nothing funny about this act, no sir. As he went on to describe in detail his own libel case in which he and The Guardian were sued by Matthaias Rath, vitamin pill manufacturer based in South Africa. The seriousness of the issue was reaffirmed by Goldacre’s nicely paced delivery, even though he is usually known for his tendency to speak at somewhere close to the speed of light! Whilst the case was dropped after a year the cost of the case was in the hundreds of thousands of pounds and only a fraction of that was able to be reclaimed at the end. The cost of winning this case was a mere £170,000! Not only does a case like this cost horrendous amounts of money, but it also has a cost on the lives of those involved.
Dara O’Briain had the pleasure of following this hard hitting message, but being pressed for time as he was the last to perform he gave a speedy but wonderfully funny segment of jokes from his most recent tour. There were some great moments towards the end where he began to get excited about the anticipated laughter just before telling a joke, which reminded me of a small child eager to tell someone a secret! He brought the mood up perfectly, whilst also remembering to reinforce the message for reform.
The fact that so many people turned out to the show was highly encouraging but more needs to be done before these actions are likely to go through. It is up to us to contact our MPs (this can be done through the libel reform site http://www.libelreform.org) and encourage them to join this campaign. With the up and coming election it is even more essential that this issue becomes party wide and is not isolated only to the minority parties. It is time that true freedom of speech was up held.