I have some videos to add to this – guess I’ll put them on YouTube when I have time and add the links later.
Made it to Parliament in good time today despite having my lunch prematurely ended by impromptu phone meeting with boss re: latest project report, then the tubes being delayed (as usual).
Arrived, followed Dave Gorman in and said hi. Got scared by guards with big rifles. Security was, however, surprisingly lax and we had plenty of time for sitting outside Committee Room 14 chatting. Filed in at about 1:45 – loads of us, filled the room. I particularly noted the posh green leather chairs! Though it took a good half an hour and a name-check from Evan to realise I was 3 seats down from Prof. A. C. Grayling (amg nerd joy).
Our favourite Dr Evan Harris MP chaired for the first 6 speakers.
1. Jonathan Heawood, Director of English PEN
Stated the importance of free speech; something the UK should be proud of. Instead we have:
Libel tourism and censorship – parasites on free speech.
His speech is then interrupted to make way for the super-busy MPs who only have a short time to come in, but continues later in the order.
Money has become a greater determinant in libel cases than the claim to public interest. Scientific speech is not given enough protection and the public interest defence needs strengthening. Whether it is medical science, the environment or other fields which may be of debatable importance – the unifying fact is that their clear principles need to be acknowledged and supported.
2. David Howarth MP, Liberal Democrat Justice Spokesman
David frames his point around a major disappointment; that the government is saying very little specifically about science and peer review. He states (and I agree) that we should:
… stop corporations suing for libel; reputation does not apply in the same way as it does to individuals.
The government’s first step is limiting conditional fees, but this hasn’t shifted the balance of power quite the way we were aiming for and what is required is better perception of this power; the struggle is that of bullies and victims, David and Goliath – the underdog is in need of support.
3. Rt Hon Jack Straw MP, Secretary of State for Justice
In terms of attendance, this is one of the biggest public meetings that I have seen… for many years…
Certainly a highlight of the day, that so many people turned up to show their support and determination to get these laws changed and secure the freedom that science writing (and indeed writing/reporting generally) needs. Straw confirms that this attendance is:
… an indication of the scale of concern about the way in which our defamation laws, not because of anybody’s “fault” but just the way in which they have developed, have become unbalanced.
So, for the last 8 weeks or so there has been a Working Group on libel law, and a report is available on the website.
He believes the main aims are:
- Restricting libel tourism
- Adjusting the single publication rule (see Index for more on that)
- Protect the Fair Comment defence
- Address the issue of costs and improve the defamation law
The no-win-no-fee setup has had a profound impact on local and regional newspapers’ reporting, which highlights another major aim:
- Protect public interest journalism
He finishes on the matter of the election happening by the 3rd of June* and there won’t be a finished bill by then, but there should be a draft bill ASAP – and that there will be an online Q&A to come, so watch that space!
I will add that the times when I stopped writing to find him, it seemed, looking directly at me were a little unnerving. Not sure why, just a bit odd really.
4. Henry Bellingham MP, Conservative Justice Spokesman
*Begins by pointing out some weird conditions that may lead to the election coming as late as September 9th, but I’m told that’s highly unlikely…
He divides the cause into two main parts: cost and the law itself.
He reiterates the oft-made point:
Trashed reputations still need to be given the opportunity to defend and have access to justice
Which is of course true but somewhat of a side issue. Apparently, the conservatives “welcome today’s announcements” and reforms are necessary. His “concern” is that the secretary of state said “on as timely a basis as possible” and that it should be given “more urgency and priority”, though he did not expand on this and to me it just sounded like trying to win over the room.
The Law Committee should (and can) move quickly and “within months” (by the end of 2010), the bill could be completed in order to protect freedom of expression, research and individuals defending their reputations in the face of personal onslaughts (here I recall Duncan Campbell’s description of the vendetta-style pursuits of some of the people who took legal action against him).
Billingham reckons that Libel Reform is
… knocking on an open door, with respect to all parties.
5. John Whittingdale MP
Here the first issue is conditional fee arrangements (CFAs) and the impact the ‘libel insurance scam’ has had on investigative journalists and science.
We should not just address libel tourism but get a reversal of the burden of proof back on to the claimant, as is the case in the USA, where, he reminds us, they have actually legislated against UK judgements applying, because we aren’t defending freedom of speech.
That is, rulings made here are not applicable because the USA thinks we’re too stupid, essentially. We really need to be ashamed of that.
He ends by warning that there’s a danger the issue could be lost in the new parliament, so the heat needs to be kept on.
Simon said his bit, which I recorded and may upload at a later date. Sorry, Simon, this is the best photo I got!
Peter Bottomley took over from Evan as chair for the rest of the session.
7. Dr Fiona Godlee, Editor-in-Chief of the BMJ
Fiona reinforces a major issue:
the need for debate within medical science because it directly affects individuals… it’s crucial to criticise and the response should not be through the law.
Journals rely on openness and unfortunately libel within medicine is not new; journals have been wasting a lot of money on libel insurance for years. There are new cases, like those of Singh, Wilmshurst and Lacerda, but also many cases we never hear about because people cannot fight them.
It will be a positive step to prevent corporations using libel, which will filter down to benefit the public.
8. Naomi McAuliffe, Amnesty International UK
Human rights violation reporting has also been damaged by libel.
NGOs are still feeling the libel chill despite their work being in the public interest
Minimal and proportional response is acceptable and indeed necessary, but not what we currently see. Our libel laws are blocking justice and reporting on UK-based organisations working overseas.
9. Tracey Brown, Sense About Science
Tracey talks about where to go from here but begins by advising anyone thinking of doing a law MSc to just join an 8-week Ministry of Justice working group instead!
It is an illusion that libel laws are protecting reputations
- Libel laws chill discussions we need to hear
- They shield the reputations of people who deserve none
- It all comes at a high price
She recalls how many people, MPs or otherwise, may say “it’s not the most important issue…”
Well, how so? This is about freedom of debate, expression, speech. This is THE issue, underlying all others. Without freedom of speech, we wouldn’t be able to talk about improving anything.
The changes made must
- Protect people from legal bullies
- Give a simple defence to replace what exists now.
Peter Bottomley gives closing remarks.
If people want to do more:
See if MPs will ask local chiropractors if they think the BCA is doing the right thing, and if they do, to explain their reasoning to parliament!
Peter sued a Sunday paper after it claimed he was a paedophile despite him doing nothing but denying the allegations. He knows this is not a campaign to prevent people protecting themselves against such onslaughts.
His wife was secretary for health and knows why it is important to argue;
The truth should not be coming from the side with the better lawyers
What should happen:
- Did the claimant ask what was actually meant?
- Did they take the right to reply?
The victory should not go to the side with the deepest pockets and most time.
Afterwards I went to shake Prof. Grayling’s hand and he congratulated me for doing important work (re: PhD)! Squee. Didn’t ask for a photo as thought he was rushing off but then saw someone else doing it anyway.
Robert Sharp (photos again!) was convincing a slightly sceptical Australian guy of the importance of the campaign over and above cost issues.
I said hi to Simon (congrats to him and his wife on their new addition to the family, Hari!) and what a lovely guy he is, 2-year mega-expensive lawsuit couldn’t have landed on a nicer person, but thank goodness he’s stuck with it and all this positive stuff has resulted.
Overheard Dave Gorman talking to Simon about his MP not showing up and something about a Twitter message saying it wasn’t important enough?!
In the Central Lobby I met with Chloe, the representative for Emily Thornberry MP, who gave me copies of the Early Day Motion she’s signed; EDM 423 Libel Reform – get your MP to sign it if they haven’t already! And a copy of a reply to a letter sent to Jack Straw on December 21st 2009, on behalf of her constituents, asking for Libel Reform. She says she will be sending more information soon.
Finally, headed for drinks at Crowbar (metal place, Soho) with Carmen and Krystal, via Salvation Army shop (random purchases ahoy; shame it wasn’t a charity whose principles I agree with a bit more…).
Marvellous in-depth discussions of everything from boyfriends’ arses to bullying teachers and humanist funerals, having kicked boots off and tweeted from phones.
Weird compliment award goes to Carmen (who spent some of the evening on her crochet) for:
Yeah, why are you single? You have a really nice-shaped head!