Government’s plans to avoid unnecessary libel claims don’t go far enough, say critics

BMJ 2012; 344 doi: (Published 05 March 2012) Cite this as: BMJ 2012;344:e1635
  1. Clare Dyer
  1. 1BMJ

The UK government plans to give greater protection against libel claims to peer reviewed articles in scientific and academic journals in its forthcoming Defamation Bill.

The draft bill extends qualified privilege to fair and accurate reports of academic and scientific conferences. But the joint committee of MPs and peers set up to scrutinise it recommended extending the privilege further, to cover peer reviewed papers (BMJ 2011; 343:d6856, doi:10.1136/bmj.d6856).

In its response to the committee’s report the government said, “We are sympathetic to the need to provide clear protection for peer-reviewed articles published in scientific and academic journals and will consider further whether this can best be achieved through qualified privilege or other means, and how key elements of the peer review process can be defined to ensure that the scope of any provision is clear.”

Qualified privilege provides a defence to a libel claim unless those publishing the defamatory statement knew it to be untrue or were reckless as to whether it was true or not.

The Libel Reform Campaign, a coalition of Sense About Science, Index on Censorship, and English PEN, welcomed the government’s commitment to a new libel bill but said that the proposals would not go far enough towards reducing libel bullying and its chilling effect on public debate.

The campaign argues that wealthy corporations can too readily issue libel proceedings as a bullying tactic. The joint committee recommended that companies trading for profit should have to seek permission to sue for libel, but the government disagrees.

Ministers have decided that anyone bringing a claim should have to show that the publication caused “serious harm”—a higher test than the “substantial harm” in the draft bill. This stronger test “should lessen the likelihood of attempts being made by corporate or wealthy individual claimants to intimidate defendants with limited resources,” the government argues.

The Libel Reform Campaign says that the bill still allows trivial and vexatious claims and contends that the new statutory public interest defence makes only minor changes to the existing “Reynolds” privilege, which has developed through case law.

Tracey Brown, managing director of Sense About Science, said, “Health, scientific research, consumer safety, history, and human rights are among the many discussions being suppressed by fear of libel action. The government knows this. But it needs to go further than the current proposals to achieve the better and workable protection for free speech that has been promised.”

The campaign highlights cases such as the libel action against the science writer Simon Singh by the British Chiropractic Association over a newspaper comment piece accusing the association of promoting “bogus” treatments (BMJ 2010;340:c2086, doi:10.1136/bmj.c2086). Dr Singh, who was ultimately successful but incurred large upfront costs, said, “I am regularly hearing from scientists, journalists, bloggers, and others who have raised concerns over matters of public interest but who are then confronted by a libel threat aimed at silencing them.”


Cite this as: BMJ 2012;344:e1635

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