Archive for October 20th, 2009

Email your MP on libel laws and the libel debate – with updates

October 20, 2009

Tomorrow (Wednesday 21st) parliament will be debating the Libel Laws, specifically prompted by the Trafigura case.

Now is the time to let your MP know that this is something you take seriously.

Skeptical blogger Simon Perry has penned an example of the kind of letter you could write, though of course your own words are best. You can find Simon’s letter here.

You can email your MP in minutes via

– just enter your postcode and follow the links.

I have just emailed mine – letter below. He is a Lib Dem so I have mentioned Dr Evan Harris MP, one of a sadly small number of scientifically knowledgeable MPs now that Ian Gibson is no longer in the Commons. But please, please, write a letter to yours. Stress the reasons why you are concerned, if possible relating them to your own profession, or experiences.

But do let your elected representative know this is something that you think matters.

As Evan Harris himself noted in a comment on Jack of Kent’s blog:

“The recent publicity of the impact of libel law in science and in writing and in medical journals, has now been fuelled by the impact of libel on Parliament. There is nothing like Parliament itself being impacted to get politicians to take notice.”

I particularly hope those of my academic colleagues who read this blog – and I believe there are a few – will email their representatives. If they do, could they please include their titles? “Dr” is good – “Professor” still better. And “FRS”, if you have one, better still.

My e-mail:



I understand that tomorrow there will be a debate in parliament on the subject of libel reform.

Recent events with the Trafigura case have given emphasis to the appalling effect of English libel laws in stifling the public’s right to know. As a professional scientist and writer about science, I am particularly worried about the way that English libel laws are being used to stifle scientific debate in the UK. This has reached the point where many scientists are not bothering to make their opinions heard. Those that do criticise other individuals – or more often companies or trade bodies – typically on scientific matters of clear public interest, are being heavily punished for doing so.

To give a couple of recent examples, medical doctor and journalist Ben Goldacre was involved in a lengthy libel battle following his criticism of Dr Matthias Rath, the vitamin “entreprenuer” who claimed anti-retroviral drugs were ineffective in treating AIDS and offered his vitamins as an alternative. Despite the fact that Goldacre and the Guardian won, they still ended up £ 150,000 worse off. Had Goldacre not had the full financial and legal backing of the Guardian, he likely would have had to “fold”. The scientist and author Simon Singh is going through a similar, though arguably worse, situation right now with the British Chiropractic Association. They are suing Singh personally for publicly criticising some of their treatments for which scientific evidence is slim to non-existent.

“Reputation management” by large companies in England has become a tool to suppress criticism. This has many dangers.
At the start of the 1960s, doctors in Germany and Australia publicly criticised the drug Thalidomide and implicated it in birth defects. By the time German paediatrician Widukind Lenz produced the proof of thalidomide’s actions in 1961, at least 10,000 children had been born with birth defects. Imagine if he, and all other scientists since, were unable to make their criticisms of drugs known for fear of legal action. It is all to easy to imagine, in an equivalent case in contemporary Britain, a manufacturer seeking to use the force of confidentiality or defamation law to suppress publication of such an opinion.

If we put a stop to criticism, we not only put an end to our ability to know which of our current treatments are effective and safe, but we also make it impossible to evaluate properly the treatments of the future.

I urge you to do all you can to help reform our uniquely repressive English libel system. The Liberal Democrats have a proud tradition of campaigning for freedom of speech, and your parliamantary colleague Dr Evan Harris has spoken out with distinction in support of Simon Singh in his legal struggle with the chiropractors. Please support him in his work.

The Trafigura case, by focussing parliament’s attention on the perils of English Libel Law, offers a chance to create a consensus to push through reform of the Libel Laws. This chance must not be missed. There are many ways the laws could be improved; to name but a few, it is high time we had restrictions on the costs of libel actions; a clear and unambiguous statutory public interest defence; and proper limits on the power of multi-billion pound corporations to sue individuals.

I hope you will do everything you can to get the laws – which have also, incidentally, made the UK an international laughing stock – changed.

Yours sincerely,

Dr Aust


Oh dear – verbose as usual.

I’m sure you, dear reader, can do it in less words.

But, in the overused phrase:

“Just do it”

Chances to create a parliamentary consensus for reform, building on a public campaign on something apolitical but of vital importance, do not come all that often.

Lets do our bit to push  our elected representatives in the right direction.

UPDATE WEDS 21st am:

You can watch the debate live from 2.30 pm – link is here.

Jack of Kent has promised to blog it – not sure if he means “as it happens”.

POST-DEBATE UPDATE – WEDS 21st    5.00 pm:

For anyone who would like a good summary of what was said, the Guardian has a useful “live blog” here (hat-tip to Zeno for tweeting it).

It was gratifying to hear MPs so genuinely offended at restrictions on “the public’s right to know” – though they were mostly talking about “the public’s right to know what goes on in parliament, a subject one would expect to be close to their hearts. The wider issue of inappropriate use of libel laws got less play – partly because in the Trafigura case it was apparently “commercial confidentiality”  rather than reputation / defamation that was the basis of the gagging injunction – though Evan Harris did mention the wider discontent about the mis-use of defamation law in his speech at the start of the debate (the speech is well worth listening to – the link has a “replay” option.

More than one MP referred to the widely quoted remarks of the Lord Chief Justice about the way that English libel law is being misused:

“We need to look closely at why [London] is called the libel capital of the world and if it is, we have to try to persuade parliament to change the law.”

It is rather piquant that the two judges whose words and rulings have, in the last week, offered some hints that there may be recognition that the English Defamation Laws are not working, are Lord Chief Justice Judge and Lord Justice (of Appeal) Laws. Laws and Judge, indeed.

Let us hope that if we can finally get some sensible defamation LAWS, there will perhaps be less tendency in future for discussion of matters of public interest to end up in front of a JUDGE.