It is a great pleasure to speak in this debate. We face a tough challenge in trying to write defamation laws. On the one hand, we want freedom of expression and, on the other, we want protection of reputation. We want to get the balance right while ensuring that the system is affordable, because the law should support whoever is right rather than whoever is wealthiest. We should also ensure that the law is accessible to all, not just to lawyers, and we simply do not have that balance. The costs are not right—they are far too high—and there is what has been described today as the chilling effect of people being silenced for fear of large costs, even in thoroughly unmerited cases. That happens. We have heard about a number of cases, including those that involved Simon Singh and Peter Wilmshurst. We have heard of publications such as Nature, Which ? and the British Medical Journal, which do not feel that they can publish articles out of fear. It applies online as well—Mumsnet, WhatDoTheyKnow and many others.
While I was writing this, a case came up in my constituency, Cambridge. Richard Taylor, a local blogger and an extremely assiduous attender of council meetings who writes them up in immense detail, described a council meeting which was looking at enforcement action against a property in Cambridge being used as a bed and breakfast without the benefit of planning permission. This has led to a rather bizarre libel threat from an organisation known as WWFS Ltd or UK Law Consultants Company, who say they are consultant solicitors. Though I am not an expert in the field, the claim appears to me to be baseless, especially since the people making the claim refuse to say which part of his description they find defamatory. They have gone on to threaten other commentators.
“My view is that this kind of thing is one of the reasons people shy away from entering discussion of how we run our society, be it at the local level in Cambridge or more broadly.
Having received the threat of legal action I have had to consider if I am prepared to risk everything I have in order to do what I consider to be the right thing and continue to publish the material. This is to an extent the question which has to be asked before publishing any material, every blog post and every tweet could potentially be personally ruinous.
Should the case reach court, the cost of defending it, even if the judgment was in my favour, could exceed my resources.”
A number of people with legal training and others are assisting Mr Taylor in the case and I think he will be all right. He is also determined enough to get through.
The current position is not acceptable. The Libel Reform Campaign was established in 2009 to try to make a difference. Lord Lester proposed his Bill in 2010. There was a Government draft Bill in 2011, and I had the great privilege of serving, with other Members who have spoken, on the Committee which considered that. The full Bill was tabled in 2012, led by the Minister, Lord McNally. It has been nice to see how this has captured the imagination. As John Kampfner, the chief executive of Index on Censorship, said,
“When we launched the Libel Reform Campaign in 2009, only the Liberal Democrats backed change. Now the cause has cross party support.”
That is absolutely correct. I pay great tribute to him and to everybody in the Libel Reform Campaign, Index on Censorship, English PEN, Sense about Science and all the other supporters that they have.
I would like particularly to mention one extremely dogged individual who has been involved with that, as well as with the Hacked Off campaign, Dr Evan Harris. I suspect that Members in all parts of the House will have heard his comments on the issue. I am delighted by the cross-party support that we have.
This is a good Bill, but with some tweaks it could be a great Bill. I am delighted by clause 1. The serious harm test is right, but it should be coupled with a strike-out power so that cases could be quickly ended where there is no serious harm to consider. I support clauses 2, 3 and 4 as they codify the common law, which means that non-lawyers such as myself can find out what the rules are, without having to plough through case law after case law.
With regard to clause 4, I am pleased about the codification of Reynolds, but it is still a complex defence. Some improvements can be made, as Members have mentioned. I hope the Government will consider the possibility of a simpler, clearer public interest defence which would apply where defendants take appropriate action to correct any errors or inaccuracies that they have made, as has been suggested by the Libel Reform Campaign. I do not expect the Government immediately to say yea or nay to any such proposal. It needs to be considered very carefully, but I hope they will look at it. If we could find something like that, it would be an excellent improvement.
Clause 6 is a key change from the draft Bill and shows the value of pre-legislative scrutiny, which I hope will be applied to a number of other Bills, as it is shortly to be applied to the draft communications data Bill. Clause 6 is extremely welcome. I pressed hard for this. My experience as an academic scientist made me particularly concerned and I was especially pleased when the Secretary of State announced, in response to a question that I asked him, that there would be a change to give protection to academics and scientists publishing peer-reviewed articles.
Currently, journals are afraid of publishing peer-reviewed statements, and academics can be afraid of making the statements that they need to make. There has been an insidious silencing of rigorous scientific debate. A survey conducted by Sense about Science in 2010 found that
38% of editors of scientific journals have chosen not to publish certain articles because of a perceived risk of libel, and 44% have asked for changes to the way articles are written to protect themselves, not necessarily because they thought there was a genuine case to answer. Journals such as
British Medical Journal and a range of others are not libel experts and should not be expected to be libel experts.