Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Have You Heard the One About The English Libel Laws Being Full of Shit?

I recently wrote a law essay for my university course, intended to be a discussion on whether libel cases were useful anymore based on the fact that the amount of damages being given out has dropped severely over the years.

It quickly evolved into a rant about the strangulation of free speech, and although I may not get top marks for it, I feel I have done myself proud.

Below is a section of the quite frankly ridiculous piece of billowing self-aware chest-beating I have ever come across.

Feel free to tell me I'm full of shit in the comment section below, what am I gonna do? Sue you?

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A Different Case: Libel Laws and Science

In some cases, libel laws set down to protect reputation have in fact made it easier for lies and misgivings to be spread more easily to the general public, as those presenting the information have essentially been protected. A campaign set up by scientists, journalists and academics called “Sense About Science” has the sole purpose of attempting to push through Amendment Four, which calls for libel laws to be reformed in England. Professor Richard Dawkins is a member of this campaign group, and was invited to speak at the Liberal Democrats Conference in 2009 to explain why he feels so strongly that the legislations needs to be changed.

“Of course there must be some redress if you are maliciously attacked in a way that damages you, but if such a law is cast too wide it can have disastrous consequences on the public interest...the vulnerable need to be protected from unproven or fraudulent claims for cures, whether by alternative therapists or big pharmaceuticals. Homeopathy...can lure patients away from the best evidence-based medicine. The trouble is it’s hard to know whether you’ll be sued, do we really want discussion s on matters of science and medicine, and indeed any area of public interest to be conducted in an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty?”

This national petition for libel law reform would essentially mean that libel laws would hold no sway over what was said in scientific discussion – providing a similar sort of leeway as politicians have in the House of Commons under absolute privilege. Sense about Science is an independent charitable trust which promotes “respect for evidence and urges scientists to engage actively with a wide range of groups, particularly when debates are controversial or difficult” . Among it’s board of trustee members is Dr Simon Singh, a BBC broadcaster within their science department, who was recently taken to court by the British Chiropractic Association after he challenged claims that chiropractic medicine could cure asthma and other childhood ailments. Despite this being a fairly important claim, especially is Singh was to be proven correct in his cynicism, the BCA are suing him for his critique. “The burden of proof is reversed in libel cases” he says in an article titled ‘BCA v Singh – The Story So Far 3 June 2009’, “I have to prove the accuracy of my statement, as opposed to the BCA proving that I am wrong, which in turn means that I am guilty until proven innocent.”

This odd situation of having the truth as a “burden” clearly shows how in a case such as Singh’s, where the stakes are much higher than merely a cash payout at the end of a court hearing, libel laws in England sometimes show themselves to have faults. It would be naive to suggest that libel laws have lost their credibility simply because of small claims courts and the rise of people suing companies within the past twenty or so years. The libel laws are not losing credibility simply because of the dwindling figures on damages cheques; over time they have simply been shown to have weaknesses, and as with all parts of the justice system, it might be reasonable to suggest a solution to fix these problems. Libel laws, as was previously explained, were put in place to save reputations from unwarranted abuse or disparaging remarks. As time progresses, however, people learn how to use laws to their advantages, and it is for this reason that libel laws should be subjected to an upheaval to correct the twisted ways in which they are being put to use in court today.

Judge Eady, who was used in a previous example of a libel law case, has become famous in his field for his often controversial rulings in cases such as these. Nick Cohen, a writer for the Observer and voracious blogger on the subject of free speech said of Eady’s judgement in the Singh case: “Because Singh used the word "bogus", the judge said he had to prove that chiropractors knew they were worthless but "dishonestly presented them to a trusting and, in some respects perhaps, vulnerable public". The learned judge did not seem to understand that the worst thing about the deluded is that they sincerely believe every word they say.”

After his ruling, Simon Singh sought an appeal against the British Chiropractic Association. Lord Justice Laws who oversaw the appeal said that “Eady had risked swinging the balance of rights too far in favour of the right to reputation and against the right to free expression” and described Justice Eady’s judgement based on Singh’s use of the word ‘bogus’ as "legally erroneous". Singh was seen to have exercised his right to free speech and his articles were shown to have been published due to a real view that they were within the realms of public interest. This was sadly only found to be the case after thousands of pounds worth of legal costs, and a great deal of time spent within the courts.

Is Defamation Still A Necessary Law?
Keeping reputations safe from untrue allegations is still extremely important, as it was back in the late 1700s when these laws were first called into action. What needs to be changed is not the very fact that in English law there is a libel law to stop untruths from causing damage, but the way in which those laws are used. Every law was created with the betterment of society in mind, but for every law there is always a loophole or clause to get past it and turn it to work in your favour. The media has always had a fraught relationship with the libel laws, being that it can be seen to infringe upon the freedom of speech that they have, and certainly in the past year the press has seen some absurd twists of libel law legislation in the form of injunctions and super-injunctions. Gagging the press is certainly not what a libel law in good working order should do, and it is in these circumstances that they should be looked at and amended to suit the needs of today’s society, especially with new laws incorporating the Right to Information Acts.

Within the realms of science and academia however, different should apply. A Dawkins said in his address to the Liberal Democrat party, scientists use evidence to disprove theories they think might be wrong. Since science works on the premise of providing irrefutable evidence before a theory is even remotely suggested as fact, sharing your evidence which proves somebody wrong should never be brought into contention; being proved wrong and having to rethink your hypothesis and experiments is what being a scientist is all about. To bring libel into the proceedings creates a feeling of fear and disparity between those working in the field of research and discovery, stopping them from proving potentially very important points simply to avoid a weighty law suit or several thousands of pounds worth of damages.

These problems do not only manifest themselves in the science world however; journalists, performers and academics have found themselves silenced by claimants pursuing a libel case. Natasha Loder, President of the Association of British Science Writers says of the libel laws effect on journalists: “Censorship does not begin in the courtroom, it doesn’t start with your editor, it doesn’t even start in the pen, it starts in my brain. The difficulty and cost of defending a libel case mean I am not able to write the truth, which has to be wrong.” Author, actor and broadcaster Stephen Fry notes; “From true free speech flow cultural richness, political liberty and wider prosperities. Instead our current laws can be manipulated to protect the corrupt and to hide the truth. They are threatening to throttle the life out of openness and freedom and to betray all those who fought over the centuries to keep us free.”

When it comes to matters of free speech, the ground can become very unsteady with regards to those fighting against it. As a free and democratic country, England has a heritage and history of upholding strong values regarding opinion and fair comment. Unfortunately, after so many libel cases brought to the doors of journalists and scientists who were simply attempting to objectively criticise another’s work, England’s ensnaring network of laws and legislations has become a joke around the world. “Libel tourists” often use English laws to “quash dissent” in their own countries, and yet there is no English law to defend public interest. Companies can easily manipulate the laws to serve their own ends and suppress criticism. Is this what the laws were put in place for? No, it is not. It is a great shame that this is what they have become, a web to catch those attempting to cast doubt on dubious claims and statistics, on those willing to chase fact rather than accept spoonfed information, and on those who genuinely care that free speech is a right worth keeping and exercising at every opportunity. England is proud if it’s grand old public rights, but if a person such as blogger Jack of Kent can feel threatened merely because he questions the judgement of his peers and those he feels justified to comment upon, then where is the right of free speech? After all, if industry professionals should be allowed to comment on the work of his peers no matter what profession they are in, and a law blogger should have no fears of being persecuted simply for airing his views on his personal website, as long as they are clean, factual and are not grossly disparaging with no evidential backing. Journalism in itself is becoming an unstable industry, and it needs writers working off their own backs with inside knowledge to fill the gaps where once newspapers had their own team of specialists. While the English libel laws continue to restrict the voices of those less powerful or affluent, opinions will be lost, a great number of vibrant sources of information will cease to exist through persecution or exasperation, and the large corporations will win out. The fourth amendment will help to diminish these dour possibilities from happening within our lifetime, but something more robust must be done to fix it for the future.

2 comments:

Saxby123 said...

Interesting! I did the question about privacy. I want to put all my essays on my blog after I graduate, all the hard work and hardly anyone gets to read it!

Katie said...

You liar, it's not in the slightest bit interesting :p

I started the privacy one, and then realised I was talking out of my arse.

it is a shame that most of my essays get forgotten about once they're handed in. Such venomous ranting....get your up, you'll be the world's greatest political blogger in no time!

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