The impact of England’s libel laws on science have been making headlines over the last year. The Guardian columnist Ben Goldacre was sued for libel when he criticised Matthias Rath for promoting vitamins in South Africa as a treatment for HIV. I am currently being sued for libel for criticising the British Chiropractic Association, also in the Guardian. Meanwhile, Peter Wilmshurst, a highly respected cardiologist, is being sued for libel by the American company NMT. If he loses, he will be bankrupted.
These cases are only the tip of the iceberg. Numerous other scientists and science journalists have withdrawn articles after libel threats, while many more self-censor. This is known as the chilling effect of libel.
Some have argued that those who write accurate articles have nothing to fear. Unfortunately, two central problems mean that those who write honestly and accurately remain terrified that the laws of libel will be used to gag them.
First, the sheer cost of a libel case is prohibitively expensive. While the damages at stake might be just £10,000, the cost of the trial can run to over £1 million. This means that large corporations can issue a libel writ and essentially force an article to be pulled. Even winning a libel case can be catastrophic because the full legal costs are never recovered – although Goldacre and the Guardian won the libel suit brought by Rath, they remain £175,000 out of pocket.
The second problem is that English libel law is stacked against the defendant. The burden of proof is on the writer, which means that a defendant is guilty until he or she can prove innocence. Moreover, there is no robust public interest defence that can be used to protect journalists and academics. Also, it is incredibly easy for a claimant to file a libel suit, because there is no need to show damage.
If you are still not convinced that our libel laws are fundamentally flawed then here are four facts that show that Britain is a pariah state in terms of free speech:
- English libel costs are estimated to be 140 times greater than the average in mainland Europe.
- London is the libel capital of the world because claimants know that they have the best chance of winning here.
- American states are now protecting their own citizens by passing laws to block the impact of English libel laws.
- Major American publishers have recently said that they may block UK access to their websites to prevent libel actions.
It is time to stand up for academic freedom, to defend free speech and reform English libel laws. Politicians have expressed some enthusiasm for the idea of reform, but public pressure is needed to encourage them.
You can help by signing up to the campaign for libel reform.
This post is summarised from an article first published in CaSE News December 2009.