The Gagging of Great Britain... and Beyond

There are many things we can criticise the US for, but freedom of speech is not (at present) one of them. The US not only have the valuable First Amendment rights to freedom of speech but these rights have been explicitly expanded by "The Speech Law", a law with the express purpose of protecting Americans from the toxic laws of the British libel courts.

London has become the "global capital" of "libel tourism", a shameful place where the laws are so deeply in favour of wealth that rich dictators and crackpots can silence writers all over the world. This has huge global implications. Ethiopian billionaire Sheikh Mohamed Al-Amoudi recently won £175,000 and £180,000 in default judgements against the Ethiopian journalist who runs the Ethiopian Review from exile in the US. See also the case of the "Ukrainian attacked in a Ukrainian newspaper in Ukrainian in Ukraine" - in British libel courts.

But the effect of the British libel laws is even more pernicious, we often hear of the speech that is actually banned when an author is crushed by a multi-million pound judgement and the Streisand Effect takes hold. What we never hear about is the speech that is silenced before it is even published, through fear of aggressive libel actions. A new book exposing the secrets of Scientology is effectively banned in the UK for example, not because of any existing libel suit, but because every single publisher approached was too afraid of a libel suit to release the book in the UK. The question we should be asking is how much material on the desks of The Telegraph, The Times, The Guardian and The Independent ends up in a file drawer, waste paper bin or paper shredder because of the same self-censorship? This problem was bad in the age of the financial boom, back when writing was actually profitable. Even then, Private Eye was nearly bankrupted by its libel expenses and only survived by appealing to its readers for cash. But now, when many newspapers are barely breaking even, publishers simply can't afford to defend themselves against frivolous libel suits. The end result is that the rich and famous can now successfully silence their enemies through self-censorship.

What does this have to do with science? There are endless cases of science journalists being silenced through dodgy libel claims. The Guardian had to pay out over half a million pounds to defend Dr. Ben Goldacre against Matthaias Rath, the vitamin pill manufacturer - as Goldacre describes in "The Doctor Will Sue You Now", a chapter of the book "Bad Science" - released online and in later editions because the libel suit prevented the chapter being published in the original edition. The Guardian was left hundreds of thousands of pounds out of pocket and Goldacre laments: "Nobody will ever repay me for the endless meetings, the time off work, or the days spent poring over tables filled with endlessly cross-referenced court documents" - this the consequence of Goldacre winnning the case. Similarly, Simon Singh spent "£200,000 and two years of his life" defending himself against the British Chiropractic Association, before winning the case but coming out financially wrecked.

The problem with British libel laws is that rather than the litigant having to prove you lied, you have to prove the truth. For example, to take an old analogy lets say you claim that the Floating Teapot Corporation is talking nonsense when they state as fact that there is a tea pot in orbit around the earth. As far as the the courts are concerned it is down to you to prove the point that this teapot does not exist - a clearly impossible feat.

We are now at a tipping point, the end of a truly massive three year campaign for libel reform in the UK. The reform bill which received all party support before the last general election has now been dropped from the Parliamentary timetable after a sabotage attempt by a bunch of Lords whose "prior restraint" "wrecking ammendment" would see British law sent back to the stone age. The amendment would mean "censorship before publication – that has not existed in this country for 300 years and that is explicitly outlawed by the First Amendment to the US Constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR)"...  "the wreckers also wish to punish newspapers that do not submit to state-sanctioned regulation by obliging them to pay exemplary damages if defeated in actions for libel". There are now only nine days left to get the Defamation Bill back in to Parliament before the bill is killed for good. So, if you care about free speech, forward this news to your friends in the UK and ask them to write to their MP and ask them to keep their pre-election promise to protect freedom of speech and do everything in their power to block the prior restraint wrecking amendment that has been introduced at the eleventh hour.

Further Reading:

10 days to save libel reform (Libel Reform Campaign) - Published Yesterday

Read between the lines: this is press censorship (The Telegraph)

What price freedom with Labour's stance on libel? (The Guardian)

Libel reform is at risk, all because of a fit of pique (The Guardian) 

Image Credit: Adapted from art by Shutterstock/Red_Spruce

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