Libel Reform Under Threat

 

Britain has some of the worst libel laws in the world. They are used to stifle legitimate comment and bully writers who are trying to expose the excesses of the rich and powerful. Simon Singh recounts how:

In 2005, the Saudi billionaire Sheikh Khalid bin Mahfouz sued the American author Rachel Ehrenfeld for publishing Funding Evil, which discussed how terrorism is funded. The case was held in London, because an international businessman such as Mahfouz can claim a reputation in almost any jurisdiction and the book was sold in this country; in fact, a grand total of 23 copies were sold in Britain.

Mahfouz was able to play high-stakes poker with Ehrenfeld and push a $1 million stack of chips on to the libel table. Ehrenfeld and her publishers could not afford such losses as it would have meant bankruptcy, so they backed down, settled early and paid £30,000 damages and £80,000 in costs.

Simon himself has suffered from the same law. He was sued when he accused the British ChiropractIc Association of promoting “bogus treatments” Two years later he finally won his case but then faced a battle to recover his legal costs of at least £100,000. Simon’s case attracted a lot of support. The appeal court judge expressed concern that legitimate matters for public and scientific debate should not be stifled by the law. One result is the Defamation Bill, an attempt to reform the libel law that is close to becoming law. But it is under threat. There is a bid to remove a clause that requires corporations to demonstrate proof of harm and not merely claim damage to their reputations when initiating libel cases. This is important. It raises the bar for rich individuals and institutions that use the threat of libel action to intimidate opponents who cannot match their deep pockets.

English PEN, which strives for freedom to read and freedom to write is part of the alliance promoting the bill. I reproduce their most recent statement below and urge readers in the UK to act to defend the integrity of the bill.

A new threat to libel reform – help us stop the corporate libel bullies libel-reform-campaign-pic

Four days before the Defamation Bill has its final and decisive debate in the House of Commons, we need your support to ensure that the libel reform campaign succeeds in reforming the law

Conservative MP and libel barrister Sir Edward Garnier is trying to remove a clause that would limit companies’ ability to use libel threats to intimidate critics into silence. The amendment was passed with an overwhelming majority in the House of Lords. The attempt to remove this clause will be voted on during debate on the Bill on Tuesday 16 April.

Companies can claim damage to their reputation, but never have to show that damage actually occurred.  The threat of costly legal battles with large corporations is what keeps many journalists, bloggers, scientists and human rights campaigners silent. The bullying of individuals by companies and silencing of whistleblowers has been one of the central concerns of our campaign, and a key area for reform.
Please write to your MP and tell them not to support Garnier’s amendment.

We’ve heard that the Conservatives might back Garnier on this, and that the Liberal Democrats will join their Conservative colleagues, even though restricting corporations from suing individuals unless they can prove harm was a commitment in the Liberal Democrat manifesto. Two parliamentary committees have also supported this reform. Please write to Nick Clegg and David Cameron and urge them to tell their parties not to support Edward Garnier’s amendment, and to make sure the clause on companies becomes part of the Defamation Bill.

Read our briefing for MPs on why this, along with a clear strong public interest defence, would do the most to lessen the damage the laws are inflicting on free and open debate. A Bill without either reform would be a wasted opportunity. Please point your MP towards our briefing at this link when you write to them.

We’ve seen the best of democracy in action – we have forced libel reform onto the political agenda and when politicians have listened to us, we’ve seen the best improvements to the Defamation Bill. Please tell your MP not to support Garnier’s amendment and tell David Cameron and Nick Clegg that the Government should not do so either.
With very best wishes,
The English PEN campaigns team

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