The possibility of reform of the UK’s unjust libel laws appears to be growing. Indeed, the Secretary of State for Justice, Jack Straw is hoping to push through the findings of the working party on libel reform, before the next general election.
Our current laws create a chilling effect on the writing, reporting and broadcasting of information, when powerful concerns can threaten debilitating libel action against any who threaten their interests. It’s not that the libel laws are themselves completely at fault but that they encourage astronomical costs to be involved in libel action, in some cases nore than 100 times more costly than in Europe. The horrific costs of a libel case mean that losing can result in a legal bill running to over £1m (even if the damages are just £10,000). The result is that the UK has become the top global location for libel tourism or even, as some have termed it, libel terrorism.
The cases highlighted by the Libel Reform Campaign should add greater pressure for reform. The cases of Simon Singh and Peter Wilmshurst highlight the real dangers and distortion that the suppression of free expression through the courts can present to the public. Wilmshurst is being sued in the UK by a US company, NMT Medical Inc, for an article written by a Canadian medical journalist and published on a US website. The journalist was reporting a lecture given by Wilmshurst at a major medical conference in the US. Simon Singh was sued by the British Chiropractic Association after he wrote an article in the Guardian criticising the association for supporting members who claim that chiropractic treatments – which involve manipulation of the spine – can treat children’s colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying. As Bad Science author Ben Goldacre puts it, any law that stifles critical appraisal is a danger to patients and the public. Most recently, Danish radiologist Henrik Thomsen has spoken of his fears of discussing his work after a subsidiary of General Electric claimed he had damaged its reputation by raising concerns about a product.
The campaigning done by Index on Censorship, English PEN and Sense about Science under the banner of the Libel Reform Coalition has led over 20,000 people to sign a petition and MPs to receive 7,000 letters and emails in just a few months. Supporters include Stephen Fry, Lord Rees of Ludlow, Ricky Gervais, Martin Amis, Jonathan Ross, James Randi, Professor Richard Dawkins, Penn & Teller and Professor Sir David King, former Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK Government.
These, and other, cases present a clear reminder that English libel laws need to change. The US has already realised that there is something fundamentally wrong with our legal system and is taking action. Indeed, American states are now individually passing laws to protect their citizens from libel actions in the UK and as a result English libel judgments will soon carry no weight in America.
David Cameron and Nick Clegg are already considering reform of our libel laws seriously and the clamour for reform is being made clear from several quarters, not least the Libel Reform Campaign.
You know what it’s like – some bad stuff happens somewhere, the ‘international community/coalition of the willing’ occasionally decide, for whatever reason, to do a little bit of liberal intervention, ‘nation building’ gets on the agenda, and the establishment of a free media is pushed hard. However, it is often forgotten, or at best an afterthought, to involve communications as a direct contributor to the creation or development of democratic government institutions and systems in host nations. Although the establishment of a free media is well served by many respected NGOs, such as IWPR and Reporters Sans Frontieres, developing or new government institutions and political bodies are often ill-prepared to engage with this free media and the public at large.
Basically, the demand side of civil and democratic society, i.e. a free media, gets much more attention than the supply side, ie the governments and political parties. The fantastic work of NGO does often indeed produce a free media but the government (and private) institutions who are required to engage with this media have no idea how to engage with them. For example, I’m thinking of the notion of a BBC-style Question Time being conducted in DRC or Sudan – it just ain’t going to happen that often (although something similar has been conducted in Sierra Leone).
Let’s face it, many regimes have often had their very own special way of dealing with the media – coercion, blackmail, disapperances, even the banning of any free media whatsover. So when these regimes change, by force or otherwise, the newly developing government (and private) institutions, often have little cultural legacy, regarding communicating to a free media and the public at large, to draw upon.
‘Nation building’ aims at host nation governments taking on their democratic responsibilities – rule of law, fiscal and monetary regulation, ethical governance, human rights, security etc. Part of these responsibilities is engagement with its citizens (pretty much a cornerstone of democracy), often via a free media. Indeed, in relatively stable liberal democracies, considerable investment is made in PR and media training and research, to enable institutions to fulfil this responsibility. Yet, while NGOs, IGOs and the international community may fall over each other to provide assistance in developing governance, legal institutions, security, economics and media freedom, newly developing institutions are often left to fend for themselves in a rapidly evolving information environment.
It is vital that in international democracy assistance that the needs of both the supply and demand sides of democratic life are invested in. A free media needs a political system able to engage constructively with it. When thinking of civil society and the media, those involved in foreign policy intervention, development initiatives and post-conflict reconstruction, need to consider the communication needs, expertise, resources and training, of the very institutions they purport to be helping develop.