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UK government promises bill to reform English libel law

BMJ 2010; 341 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.c3740 (Published 12 July 2010) Cite this as: BMJ 2010;341:c3740
  1. Clare Dyer
  1. 1BMJ

    The government hopes to introduce legislation next year to reform English libel law to protect freedom of speech and scientific debate, the justice minister, Tom McNally, has announced in the House of Lords.

    Speaking at the end of the second reading debate on the private member’s Defamation Bill promoted by the Liberal Democrat peer Anthony Lester (BMJ 2010;340:c3284, doi:10.1136/bmj.c3284), Lord McNally said that the government would consult on the issue over the summer.

    However, it would not simply adopt Lord Lester’s bill but would bring forward its own draft bill for consultation and pre-legislative scrutiny in the new year, with a view to legislating in the 2011-12 parliamentary session. This was not a “vague promise” but a firm commitment to action, he said.

    The decision is a victory for a high profile campaign for libel reform by Index on Censorship, Sense about Science, and English PEN, which saw all three major political parties include reform pledges in their manifestos for last May’s UK general election.

    The campaign highlighted the cases of the science writer Simon Singh, who was sued by the British Chiropractic Association over a comment article accusing them of happily promoting bogus treatments (BMJ 2010;340:c2086, doi:10.1136/bmj.c2086), and of the cardiologist Peter Wilmshurst, who is still defending a libel action by a US medical device manufacturer over comments he made as co-investigator on a clinical trial of their product (BMJ 2010;340:c967, doi:10.1136/bmj.c967).

    “Freedom of speech is the foundation of democracy,” said Lord McNally. “We need investigative journalism and scientific research to be able to flourish without the fear of unfounded, lengthy, and costly defamation and libel cases being brought against them.

    “We are committed to reforming the law on defamation and want to focus on ensuring that a right and fair balance is struck between freedom of expression and the protection of reputation.”

    He said that the government recognised the effect of the current law on freedom of expression, “particularly in relation to academic and scientific debate, the work of non-governmental organisations, and investigative journalism.”

    It would be looking at ways to deal with concerns about “libel tourism,” the trend for foreigners to bring libel claims in the English courts to take advantage of the country’s claimant friendly libel laws.

    The government review would also consider other elements of Lord Lester’s bill such as a statutory public interest defence, whether corporations should be allowed to sue for libel, and reform of the law relating to internet publication, he said.

    Lord Lester welcomed the surprise announcement as “extremely encouraging,” adding, “I wonder if I’m alive at all or whether I’m in heaven, because I never thought to hear a reply of that kind.”

    Tracey Brown, of Sense about Science, said, “The libel reform campaign, supported by over 50 000 people and many leading commentators, will continue doing all we can to ensure that the minister’s response to the debate today is translated into meaningful change in the lives of bloggers, science writers, non-governmental organisations, and small publications facing threats and bankruptcy under the current laws.”

    Notes

    Cite this as: BMJ 2010;341:c3740

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