Yesterday morning I helped to launch the libel reform campaign in parliament with Index on Censorship, English PEN and Sense About Science. To be fair, the best line came the day before at the celeb launch from Alexei Sayle, who explained that he was once sued for libel by someone, and it cost over £100,000 to defend: “it would have been cheaper”, he explained, “if I’d just stabbed the f*cker.”
The report is extremely good and I encourage you to read it here:
Libel is an issue close to my heart. I was sued by a pill salesman called Matthias Rath last year in a case which took 19 months to resolve, and cost the Guardian £535,000 to defend. We got £365,000 reimbursed: that means the cost of winning was £170,000, slightly less than the cost of the average house.
Then there is Simon Singh’s case. Then there is the case of Peter Wilmshurst, a medical academic who is currently defending himself against a charge of libel brought in London by a US company over comments he made to an US journalist working for a US publication about a US trial he was involved in. He expressed concerns about what he regards as inconsistencies in the data, and has raised the possibility that the medical technique being studied may not have been successful in some cases. He is defending himself single-handedly, risking his family’s home and livelihood in standing up to this company, after the Medical Defence Union declined to support him.
Our libel laws are a menace, but not to journalists, or even to doctors: they are a menace to you. Put very simply, when you restrict the free criticism of medical ideas and practices, you harm patients and the public.
Medicine is a sinister business, because it is possible – quite accidentally – to do great harm, even when you intend to do good. This is why all medical practices and ideas must be subjected to free and intense critical scrutiny, and that is a process you can see in any medical journal, at any hospital journal club and in any scientific conference, where academic presenters frequently find their claims being attacked in an extremely direct and uncompromising fashion. This is not incidental, and it is not merely tolerated: this is the core of medicine and science, but our draconian and unpredictable libel laws mean that even when people strive to be even-handed, these vital critical discussions are conducted in an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty.
Anyway, here is some news coverage:
The Independent Comic Dara O Briain lambasts ‘bully’ libel law
The Mirror Dara O Briain wants libel reform
New Scientist blog Campaign to reform English libel law launched
Press Gazette ‘Libel can kill – reform it now’
The Press Association Dara O Briain wants libel reform
You can see an older video of the ABSW event here where we each make the case for libel reform.
I would encourage you to contact your MP and let them know what an easy, obvious win reforming of this dumb law would be. You can also add your voice at www.libelreform.org, and if you want a present for a friend at Xmas you can donate to the campaign at www.justgiving.com/bookfund.