As the campaign for reforming England and Wales' libel laws steps up a notch, signatories to the national petition to reform libel laws are being urged to contact their MPs and ask them to support the campaign by signing an Early Day motion calling for
a re-casting of the libel laws such that, while individual reputation is protected against malicious or reckless smears, lawful free expression is not chilled and there is a fully effective public interest defence for both scholarship and responsible journalism.
I signed up to the petition pretty much as soon as it was launched and contacted my MP, Iain Duncan Smith (Conservative, Chingford and Woodford).
Mr. Duncan Smith has now written back to me, and below is the full text of his reply:
Dear Teekblog,Thank you for writing to me about EDM 423 and libel law reform. I appreciate you taking the time to contact me.I understand your concerns on this issue. It is important that those who contribute so much to research and culture in this country so not feel restricted from publishing intelectually challenging and informative articles. Fear of libel action should not curb debate by scientists, academics and journalists. Freedom of expression is the hallmark of a free society and must be strongly protected.If libel cases do succeed, the costs are often so crippling to defendants that even large newspapers are in difficulty in resisting some claims. It is evident that Britain has become an attractive place for individuals to bring about speculative libel action since lawyers will often bear the brunt of the cost in exchange for the potential rewards available to winning litigants.You may be aware that the Secretary of State for Justice, the Rt. Hon. Jack Straw MP, has recently announced that the government is drawing up plans to alter libel law.As a general rule, I do not sign EDMs as the seldom have any impact. Please be assured that I will continue to press the government on this issue, to ensure that any changes to the law adequately protect individuals without placing to great a burden on, for example, scientists, academics, journalists.Yours etc,
First things first, a very many thanks to Mr. Duncan Smith for replying. It is clear from his response that he understands the issues at the core of the campaign - the protection of scientific debate and responsible journalism. It is heartening to see support for the principle of free expression from the Conservative party, following on from Jack Straw's recent announcement of a Working Party to investigate libel reform, and the Liberal Democrat commitment to rebalancing the law to protect free debate.
In all fairness, there is the possibility that Mr. Straw's plans that Mr. Duncan Smith refers to are more bark than bite, as the extraordinary legal blogger Jack of Kent points out - a working party whose work isn't followed up with genuine Parliamentary time and a concrete set of workable legislative reforms are nothing but political point-scoring this close to an election, and yet we musn't be too quick to dismiss the progress that both Labour and Tories have made on this issue lately.
As for not signing the EDM, IDS is not alone in taking the line that 'they're not effective.' Strikes me as a chicken/egg situation, in that if high-profile MPs don't give EDMs their backing they're that much less likely to achieve the media coverage they're designed to elicit. It would of course have been a boost to see Mr. Duncan Smith sign the EDM, but it is fair to say that despite not doing so the libel reform campaign can count on his support - what remains to be seen is that with the Lib Dems, many Tories and Labour politicians joining in the campaign for reform, whether the next government's resolve, no matter what its makeup, is strong enough to pass new legislation early on in the new Parliament so that our fundamental right to free expression and debate without fear of persecution is protected.