More on Singh and libel

2010-03-16

in Books and literature, Geek stuff, Law, Politics, Rants, Science, Writing

In a development that annoys me as much as one of my favourite novels being banned in some libraries, one of my favourite authors of non-fiction has been bullied out of having time to write columns for The Guardian by the British Chiropractic Association and the awful libel laws of the United Kingdom. It also seems probable that his book projects would be more advanced, if not for this pointless and anti-democratic headache.

Singh has been courageous enough to appeal the painful initial decision against his entirely fair and justified comments, as well as try to kick off a public movement to change the laws in the UK. The need to do so is broadly recognized, with several other jurisdictions having already passed laws to protect their citizens from ‘libel tourists’ who use the UK to file baseless or frivolous claims. Newspapers including the Boston Globe and New York Times have also complained about how British law imposes on them unjustifiably.

Having a free and democratic society depends on being able to express honestly-held and justified opinions without fear that someone will exploit the law to silence you. Hopefully, the lawmakers in the UK will change tack, reform their laws, and apologize to those who have been harmed by them already. We might also hope that people will recognize that the chiropractic view that all disease is caused by ‘subluxations’ in the spine is baseless quackery (a claim far bolder and less exhaustively justified than the one that got Singh in all this trouble).

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. March 18, 2010 at 5:00 pm

“The report has plenty of comfort for more serious-minded journalists, as well as for the campaigning groups, scientists and others who worry about the chilling effect of libel law on press freedom. In English libel law (Scotland’s is different), the fact that the public has an interest in knowing about something offers only a limited defence against a charge of libel. (This is not unlike the rest of Europe, but it is shockingly different for Americans used to the First Amendment’s protection of free speech.) When sued, journalists usually have to prove that what they wrote was right, fair or at least conscientiously reported. That can be costly (even a preliminary defence can easily exceed £100,000). Foreigners may sue other foreigners, as long as they can show that their reputation was damaged in England.

Many lawyers and judges have dismissed media campaigns for changes in the law as self-interested. The committee rejects sweeping proposals for reform, such as statutory caps on the size of libel damages. But it does suggest that the Ministry of Justice, which is examining the libel law, make some important changes.

One is reversing the burden of proof for corporate claimants: if they want to sue for libel, they would have to show that the published material actually damaged their business. That could help people such as Simon Singh, a science writer facing a lawsuit from the chiropractors’ trade body for calling their treatments “bogus”. The MPs also want to discourage “libel tourism” by requiring a claimant who is not based in Britain to produce a very solid argument as to why the case needs to be brought there.

As for the cost of libel actions, which can be ruinous to all but the biggest defendants, the MPs have few specific ideas, though they appeal to lawyers’ sense of responsibility. That is about as realistic as urging tabloid journalists to act ethically.”

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