The following post is largely based on a press release from the Libel Reform Campaign, which describes their reaction to the publication of the as-yet embargoed Parliamentary report into libel law, and on a statement from Simon Singh and Sense about Science regarding Simon's libel case.
The House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee today publishes its findings following its enquiry into Press Standards, Privacy and Libel. The coalition of campaign groups that have been pushing for libel law reform have welcomed the Committee's findings, calling them
a great starting point to ensure a once in a generation overhaul of our libel laws.
According to the Libel Reform Campaign,
the report makes important recommendations on curbing libel tourism, strengthening the public interest defence, cutting the cost of libel cases by holding down lawyers per hour charges, and recognising the resources that corporations can use to bully charities, writers and scientists by reversing the burden of proof in cases involving corporations.
This news will be welcomed by the thousands of people who have supported the Libel Reform Campaign by signing their petition and writing to their MP, and will be keenly received by the scientists, journalists and bloggers who are currently experiencing the most illiberal libel law system in the world. Speaking for Sense about Science, the charity that has supported medics and scientists being sued for publishing scientific discussion, Tracey Brown said
We welcome the committee's recognition of the harmful effects of UK libel laws on the science and medical community. The proposal for a clear public interest defence is an important step toward the far-reaching reform that is needed.
The Editor of Index on Censorship Jo Glanville, the leading free-speech organisation that has campaigned for libel laws to be reformed, was adamant that any new laws must ensure that free debate is encouraged for all:
It’s important that a fair comment defence is available to everyone, not just for academic discussion out of the reach of ordinary people.
The publication of the Select Committee's report coincided with what may be a pivotal, historical moment in the libel saga. Yesterday saw the three most senior judges in the country hearing Simon Singh's appeal against the pre-trial judgement on meaning handed down by Mr. Justice Eady in April last year. This is arguably the most high-profile libel case in years, one of many cases that the Libel Reform Campaign has highlighted as exemplifying the unjust nature of English libel law - for its insistence that the defendant prove his innocence, for its staggering cost, for the ease with which writs can be issued to silence legitimately-made critical commentary. Although the judgement of Lord Chief Justice Judge, Master of the Rolls Lord Neuberger and Lord Justice Sedley is not expected for some weeks, Index on Censorship report Lord Judge's comments at the hearing:
I’m just baffled. If there is reliable evidence [regarding the efficacy of chiropractic], why hasn’t someone published it?
Which, if it weren't so easy to revert to libel in order to crush dissent, is what the British Chiropractic Association would have done - instead they sued, landing Simon with an expensive and sapping case. After his appeal, Simon reiterated that no matter the outcome of his particular case, the need for wider reform remained:
My greatest desire is that journalists in future should not have to endure such an arduous and expensive libel process, which has already affected the careers of health journalists such as Ben Goldacre, and which is currently bearing down on the eminent cardiologist Peter Wilmshurst. If Peter loses his case then he will be bankrupted. Please continue to spread the word about libel reform.
With the positive goings on in the Court of Appeal, and the encouraging Select Committee report emphasising the intention to reform the unfair libel laws within Parliament, those campaigning for free speech can take encouragement - much further work is no doubt required before free expression can be guaranteed, before scientific and political debate can proceed free of the fear of persecution, but this February week will surely be looked back on as a momentous time for the free speech movement.