A couple of years back I attended a Skeptics in the Pub meeting in Holborn at which Dave Gorman and Prof Brian Cox came to support Simon Singh. He had been served a libel threat by the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) for criticising claims from chiropractors about curing colic in babies and so on. A dangerous claim to make, and, as Simon put it, a “bogus” one.
Fortunately, Simon won his case. Others haven’t been so lucky, and more threats are being issued.
There are many problems with the UK libel laws – lots of background information can be found here at libelreform.org and I’ve written some posts over the years (really rather a lot of posts actually), if you’re interested in past events.
Essentially libel laws are often used to silence fair, necessary and important criticism. People without the money to fight these hideously expensive cases tend to just give up. Individuals are bullied by large corporations, medical debates are stifled, unethical behaviour is hidden.
The libel reform campaign has been set up and run by the three charities, Sense About Science, English Pen and Index on Censorship. Two years ago there was the Big Libel Gig, to fundraise for victims of libel threats.
Libel Reform in Parliament
So today’s journey to the Houses of Parliament (committee room 11, in fact – compared to 14 two years back!) was to look at the current situation. A draft bill has gone through (and sorry, from the get-go, my legal/political terminology is likely to be incorrect at times – feel free to correct it!) and we’re looking at how it measures up to the promises given by all three parties before the last general election, to see if the proposed changes are what we need.
In attendance today were Dara O’Briain, Brian Cox, Dave Gorman, Ben Goldacre, Jon Butterworth, Evan Harris, Peter Wilmshurst and many others, we packed out the committee room like last time. A summary from the Guardian here and Mike Harris writes, too.
I’ll go through the speakers in the order they appeared with any comments/links I feel necessary! Here’s an awesome video summary from the day:
Kirsty Hughes – Index on Censorship chief exec.
Kirsty gave a quick introduction and mentioned the passing of the USA’s SPEECH Act, which prevented foreign libel suits from being enforced in the US – a measure to counteract libel tourism, which is a big problem with our own libel system.
Jo Glanville – Index on Censorship editor and incoming English PEN director
Jo mentioned that in the current bill, libel tourism and libel chills in peer review situations have been addressed, but the public interest defence has not, nor has the issue of corporations vs. individuals. Due process for online forums should also be considered (the lack of provision for the internet age is a common problem in our legal system – coincidentally the Twitter Joke Trial was ongoing as well today).
Robert Flello – Labour MP for Stoke-on-Trent
Robert asked how anyone can possibly interpret these laws and defend themselves, not being a lawyer himself and having tried to “get to grips with things”, while he has more resources available to him than perhaps the average person. He stressed that the libel threat letters sent to people are intimidating and bullying, and much work is still needed to improve the bill. It shouldn’t always have to involve the courts so the clarity must be there, in addition to sorting out the corporations issue. While government is in recess for the summer, lobbying must continue for all that time in order to add new clauses.
David Davis – Conservative MP for Haltemprice and Howden
David said we must “extend protection to anyone making well-informed, well-intentioned critical comments that are in the public interest”. Regarding the phenomenon of parliamentary privilege in the commons, he pointed out this kind of protection should also operate in science and medicine, where it’s vital we can have debates without fear of being silenced.
He asked rhetorically whether the parties have understood what is being asked of them, considering the complexity of the issue. The public interest defence aspect is still impenetrable and we don’t just want to rely on ministers being persuaded over the summer – coalitions respond to pressume fromt he back benches, so what is wanted and why must be made clear [I’d say it’s pretty clear already, but hey].
We all need to be able to say when someone is/people are wrong and “behaving like charlatans”!
Simon Singh – funky-haired mathematician, author and TV bloke
It’s all been going for 3 years! Simon recalled the first meeting at SitP and that everyone in attendance agreed it was a disgrace that people could be silenced in this way. As a thought experiment, he asked if we passed the current bill and there was a new case… what then? Actually, nothing has really changed. It would still eat 2.5yrs of your life and cost you a hell of a lot of money.
So, we have to change it, including the public interest defence in particular. Clegg apparently said it should be an “international blueprint” and Lord McNally said “this will be my legacy”. But new cases are still happening, and the chill is still there. We have to make the politicians understand!
Dave Gorman – comedian, author and presenter
Dave has written his own post here. He started by asking us to look at Simon’s case from the BCA’s point of view. Were they lying when they made their claims? If not, then they should have welcomed the debate that ensued. They were given the right of reply to Simon’s Guardian article to explain their claims, they declined. They just wanted to silence their critics.
What about the thousands of cases that don’t get to court? People who can’t afford it and are scared into keeping quiet. What truths are we not hearing??
Kamila Shamsie – novelist
Kamila wished to highlight that the arts also suffer libel chilling effects. Novels have been written and people have decided that characters resemble them closely, have sued, and the book disappears. Libel also affects our culture because of self-censorship. Publishers often can’t afford to spend money on laywers as well as new novelists. People are marginalised and shut out, and small publishers can be put out of business entirely.
Ben Goldacre – Doctor, author, massive nerd
Ben was sued by Matthias Rath, a vitamin pill salesman who tried (and sadly succeeded a lot) to convince people that taking his pills would cure them of HIV/AIDS. His case lasted 17 months, cost £535,000 and even though they won, only £365,000 of the costs were recouped, meaning that winning such a libel case still costs £175,000 (thankfully picked up by the Guardian) and a hell of a lot of your time.
Medicine is full of claims that are dangerous, people make mistakes trying to good, and sometimes charlatans step in deliberately misleading people. We must be able to criticise because people’s lives are at risk.
Ben ended with: “Do you want us to stand up and criticise these people, or do you want us to shut up?“
Dara Ó Briain – comedian and presenter
He does a lot of talking on stage, taking the piss out of quacks and bad science and the like. Ben and Simon are quite well-versed in the background though, yet have still faced this problem – how is he supposed to feel! The chilling effect is far-reaching.
The Reynolds defence applies specifically to the media and journalists and as such doesn’t work for small groups/organisations or individuals, bloggers, etc. With respect to those who use libel threats to unjustly maintain misleading reputations and claims, “we cannot offer them the privilege of not having their feelings hurt“.
Brian Cox – pretty physics prof., presenter, pianist (all the Ps! Wait, what?)
Here’s Brian summing up on BBC News. He kept it short yesterday, but emphasised that the scientific process is, unsurprisingly, really important in science! It has to be protected; if the laws aren’t reformed, people can’t work in the way they need in order to do their science.
Katie O’Donovan – of mumsnet.com
The national importance of libel reform had been highlighted so far but Katie wanted to emphasise the public and personal need for freedom of speech protection. Protection for people discussing spurious claims made by people and companies about food, birth and so on – people need to digest these claims without the libel chill hanging over them and its potential threat to their livelihood. What is the value of anonymity online? A huge debate, it has its problems (trolls, bullying etc.), but it’s also vital in allowing people to talk freely, protecting themselves from potential dangers (think victims of violence) and obtain advice – the potential is there in the bill but it needs to be improved.
David Marshall – Which? consumer group
Evan started by pointing out that consumer organisations, such as Which?, sort through the vast number of claims made by companies trying to sell us things.
David highlighted two points of law (that I admit mostly went over my head), the first being the Reynolds defence as a public interest defence – possibly more? The second being that corporations are often using libel as reputation management. It’s a poor way to do business, just by silencing your potential critics!
Stuart Jones – biochemist, new libel victim
Stuart works for the NHS as a biochemist and just last week was threatened with a libel suit by Dr Sarah Myhill after raising concerns about her practice (details from Sense About Science, who are helping, along with some well-known “charitable lawyers”!) He wanted to speak about the feelings caused by receiving such a letter, after trying to do something important and good, realising that someone wishes to bankrupt you. He referred to the “months of legal wrangling” defending your comments, which makes you feel depressed, powerless and importantly puts you off doing the right thing in future. Ultimately, patients suffer. He ended by asking: “Who exactly are Britain’s libel laws currently protecting?“
Kate Briscoe – www.legalbeagles.info
Legal Beagles is an OFT-approved free consumer legal advice service. They received a defamation libel threat from Schillings, a privacy law firm, regarding their clients Retail Loss Prevention Ltd. RLP carry out “civil recovery demands” following shoplifting allegations; intimidating and often disproportionate demands of recompense from the supposed perpetrators. This indiscriminately includes the mentally ill (e.g. people suffering from dementia who cannot be held fully responsible for their actions) and even parents who return items taken by their children without their knowledge.
There was a discussion about RLP in their forum, and it is hoped that the whole practice of civil recovery should dissolve soon. Schillings requested IPs and contact details be given of all posters, and that they all be banned from the forum (including the owners!!). Given that Legle Beagles have no assets or property and technically nothing to lose, they are admirably taking on this bullying company. After learning that Schillings are threatening other consumer services, including the Citizens’ Advice Bureau(!), Legal Beagles have published the letter in full. Amusing, given that Schillings say on their website, “Resolution: achieved out of the spotlight”!!
Kate ended with one of my favourite points: “You have to be super-rich or penniless to deal with such a threat“.
Lord McNally – Minister of State for Justice
He started by poking fun at Evan, saying he “not only invites you to speak, but tells you what to say as well!”. Ehem. He went on to thank the allies, Pen, INDEX and SAS, and pulled up Dara’s statement that we’re “no further forward”, but pointing out that we were “not in the pub”! And that it’s quite a long way to have come. 18 months ago the private members’ bill was drawn up, following pre-legislation it’s now in the Commons and will come back in Autumn then into the Lords’ around November. It was hoped that it would all be done before Leveson but sadly…
The “balance” on public interest may not be right, so that’s “to play for”, apparently. He reassured us that we are “mid-way through”, with support from all three major parties. He said, “even if you don’t get everything you want, libel is now being reformed before parliament” – I’m not sure how comforting that is! Amendments are often strengthened so it will be talked about again, and we shouldn’t be pessimistic.
The question of the internet is difficult, he is aware of the need ot protect freedom online, particularly considering the replication and privacy issues. [The problem of the government largely being made up of people who do not understand the way the internet works or truly wish to protect it is a debate for another time].
They are attempting, honestly, to improve the law. It isn’t a party political issue and it’s a chance to make a good piece of legislation. That is still his intention.
Peter Wilmshurst – consultant cardiologist
Peter recalled that NMT Medical, an American company that made experimental medical devices, brought three libel/slander claims against him. Over four years and £300,000 later, NMT went into liquidation and the ordeal appeared to come to an end at last. He wouldn’t have coped without getting his lawyer, Mark Lewis, on a conditional fee agreement (CFA). The National Research Ethics Service (NRES) found that Peter was not at fault with his comments about NMT’s devices (potentially dangerous to patients).
He was advised that counter-suing would probably be futile, costing upwards of a million pounds. They can’t recoup the costs from the American company now and, worryingly, between 2007-2011 patients have still received NMT devices. The legal action prevented any future discussion of the matter. As a result, patients have suffered heart erosion, replacement implants, perforations and emergency surgeries, and at least one death.
Lawyers have stated that if the current proposals were in force, it would make no difference to how this case played out.
Tim Appenzeller– chief editor, Nature magazine
Tim highlighted the chilling effect of libel on journalism. Nature not only publishes peer-reviewed research articles, but also opinion pieces and journalism, as well as daily publishing online. For every piece they have to waste time and resources on calculating the benefits and importance of the contents versus the risk if they publish. Too much never makes it to the public demain because of this.
Simon Hughes– LibDem MP for Bermondsey and Old Southwark
Simon agreed that the corporate sector can be very intimidating to individuals, and we need to support them and make sure defence is available. “Don’t go to sleep or disappear over the next few months!” was his advice to the libel reform campaigners.
Finally, we had some comments from Andy Slaughter (Labour MP for Hammersmith) and Tracey Brown (Sense About Science director, who said “the law might be complicated, but the issues are not… what kind of society do we want?“
The session was closed by Paul Farrelly (Labour MP for Newcastle-Under-Lyme). We then trekked over to Downing Street where Dara, Brian, Dave and co. delivered the petition box to Number 10.
I had a bit of a chat with people after that, then lunch with friends, and altogether it was a nice day. Encouraging but sometimes sad because people are still dealing with this, injustices are still happening. But we’re getting there – thanks to everyone who’s been involved in the Libel Reform Campaign! Keep it up!