Thursday 15 October 2009

Can Index point the way to libel law reform?

I know we've been here before, but could the head of steam built up by the Guardian's fight against super-injunctions lead to the longed for reform of Britain's libel laws?
At a debate on 'Science Journalism and the Libel Laws' at City University tonight, John Kampfner, chief executive of Index on Censorship, said the organisation would on November 10 be publishing the result of its joint investigation with PEN into the libel laws.
The results, which includes submissions from publishers, writers, editors, journalists, lawyers and other interested parties, will include ideas for reforming the laws, Kampfner said.
The debate showed that a point around which libel law reformers can rally is needed to stop the chill of self-censorship created by the fear of costly libel actions.
Simon Singh, the freelance science journalist who has just won leave to appeal Mr Justice Eady’s ruling against him in a libel action brought by the British Chiropractic Association, said the big problem was the sheer cost of legal actions.
"Libel is expensive and laws are weighted against journalists. A workable public interest defence would change the landscape. Articles are being gutted and some not written because of the fear of libel laws."
Singh did strike an optimistic note by claiming: "The next 12 months is a real opportunity to change the law." He said campaigners for reform were building up a dossier of how libel laws had affected articles, both published and unpublished. Singh added: "If you can help, let us know."
Bad Science columnist Ben Goldacre told the debate: "I think you have to campaign for a change in the law. Not just for journalists. The most sinister effect it has is on everyone's access to information."
Tracey Brown, of Sense About Science, said the BMJ was having to consult lawyers on a weekly basis. "People think libel is all about what's in a celebrity's knicker drawer. It's not."
Pic: Simon Singh and John Kampfner at the City University debate. (Jon Slattery)

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