Some of you may have read the latest edition of Progress magazine which carries a striking image of a gagged woman standing outside Parliament to illustrate a brilliant piece written by Jonathan Heawood, Director of English PEN, on why we need to reform England’s awful libel laws in the interests of social justice.
I have to say that I’ve only recently woken up to the fraught and decades-long debate about our libel laws after Progress was served by Carter-Ruck and had to face the ignominy of crumbling in front of a legal giant with a powerful client, or trying to find the thousands of pounds it would have required to hire lawyers and fight the action. Shame and spinelessness it was. There was no way a tiny publishing outfit like Progress, even with the impact we have, could have stumped up the money to fight Carter-Ruck. And so it is with many organisations from football fanzines to small independent publishers. Even bigger outfits like the New Statesman pull investigative journalism because they can’t bear the extortionate cost of fighting a legal action.
At the launch this morning of a petition by The Libel Reform Campaign which is supported by English PEN, Index on Censorship, Sense About Science and other organisations, John Kampfner, former Editor of the Statesman quoted a Fleet Street editor who had said “lay off the oligarchs – we can’t afford it”. Ben Goldacre of Bad Science fame explained that even when you win a libel case, it ends up costing you. Goldacre’s case against Mattias Rath, a chap who seems to think his vitamin pills can cure HIV better than AIDS drugs, ended up costing the Guardian £170,000 even after their costs were paid. But it isn’t just the cost which worries most campaign supporters, it’s the fact that it means certain discussions – around pharmaceutical companies for example – take place in a culture of fear. Instead of thinking, and writing, freely, authors start by worrying about framing what they say so they don’t get stamped on with that Orwellian boot. As Goldacre put it “It’s the censorship that happens in our own heads which is the danger”.
A number of luminaries have signed up to the campaign including A C Grayling, Nick Cohen, Ben Goldacre, Monica Ali, Ian Hislop and Stephen Fry. One of the other panel speakers this morning, John Micklethwait from the Economist, set out the changes we need:
- Reversing the burden of proof in libel cases so that the plaintiff has to prove the defamation
- Extending legal aid to cover libelPossibly putting a limit on costs
- Resort to the courts only permitted when external redress has been sought and exhausted
- Introducing a public interest defence.
There will inevitably be discussion about whether we need all these changes and how they will look exactly in law, but Denis MacShane MP who has campaigned for changes to libel ever since he was President of the NUJ said that the next step must be to get the changes into Parliament, and quick. He criticised Jack Straw for suggesting in the New Statesman that he was going to be radical on this, but instead of pushing for legislation made the brave decision to set up a committee. Apparently Lord Leicester has said he would be willing to introduce a libel reform bill in the Lords, and there is always the chance that we will be able to persuade political parties to include reform in their manifestos. Meanwhile, Progress is urging its supporters to sign up to the campaign and to write to your MP to support EDM 423.
As the scope for citizen journalism grows with the expansion of the internet and print journalism wanes, the power of wealthy individuals backed by ruthless lawyers will become ever greater. This threatens our right to genuine freedom of speech – a right which we have got used to taking for granted. Reform of libel law is something all political parties can unite upon in a spirit of Christmas peace, let’s try and make them act on it.