Killing off ‘libel tourism’ in the UK

Yesterdays UK Independent had some fantastic news in it …

Major changes to Britain’s antiquated defamation laws will be outlined by ministers today with the publication of a bill to provide greater protection for free speech and an end to “libel tourism”.

The draft Defamation Bill will propose a new defence of “honest opinion”, which will protect academics from being sued by companies and special-interest groups for damaging their reputations. There is now a defence of “fair comment”, but it has to be based on stated and true facts and rarely succeeds.

There will also be new rules to stop celebrities and businessmen from bringing libel cases in Britain unless they can prove that the publication caused them “substantial harm” in the country. Foreign litigants will have to sue in the country where most of the damage to their reputations was done, rather than using the English courts on the basis that the publication was available in Britain.

Last year MPs warned that Britain’s international reputation for free speech was being damaged by the “embarrassing” spread of libel tourism. It followed dozens of cases where foreign businessmen and celebrities used the UK courts to sue for defamation even where there was no evidence of substantial publication in this country.

In one case, a Ukrainian businessman sued a Ukrainian newspaper in the UK over an article it published on corrupt land deals in Kiev. The article was written in Ukrainian and the paper had only about 100 British subscribers. But the paper was forced to apologise as part of an undisclosed out-of-court settlement.

In another case, the House of Lords allowed Russians Boris Berezovsky and Georgi Glouchkov to sue the American magazine Forbes over an article about their business activities in Russia, which contained accusations of gangsterism and corruption. Around 780,000 copies of the magazine were sold in the United States, while only around 6,000 copies were accessed in print or via the internet in the UK. Forbes did not prove the allegations were true and settled the case.

You can read the rest of the article by clicking here.

So does this really matter? You bet it does, its a really big deal, especially in the context of science. Without this reform being passed, honest open criticism on tropics that are of public interest is being gagged. The poster child of this libel reform campaign, the popular science writer Simon Singh, was sued by the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) for a piece in The Guardian newspaper that was critical of the trade. Singh lost the first legal round in which the BCA sued over his assertion that some chiropractors “happily promote bogus treatments”. But he appealed, and when a pre-trial hearing allowed the appeal to go ahead, the BCA dropped its case against him.

Who won? Nobody. The BCA is virtually bankrupt, but given that they did indeed happily promote bogus treatments, thats no bad thing. However, Simon also racked up considerable costs. The problem with Libel is that even when you are sued and win, you end up loosing due to the excessive costs, so unless you have a vast financial reserve, or some true grit like Simon who stuck to his principles, you are forced to rollover and be gagged.

If some company is flogging some wonder drug or magic cure and is making totally unsubstantiated claims you want you know, right? Well, unless those in the know are free to speak out without the fear of being sued, then you will never hear the real truth. Thats why this truly matters to you.

You can click here to check out the libel campaign web site and find out lots more.

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