Defamation Bill — Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:18 pm on 9th October 2012.

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Photo of Baroness Bakewell Baroness Bakewell Labour 5:18 pm, 9th October 2012

My Lords, this is indeed a momentous and welcome Bill, which has long been needed. Our libel law is out of date and recognised by many to have a chilling effect on free speech, not merely in this country but around the world. It has encouraged the phenomenon known as libel tourism and prompted legislation in the United States to protect American citizens from being sued in the UK. The UN Human Rights Committee has warned that our libel law could have a negative impact on the right to freedom of expression worldwide. Libel actions against individual citizens, reputable scientists and writers have been used to silence comment and criticism that is clearly in the public interest.

All this is known and understood in the framing of this Bill, and there is broad political and public consensus for substantial reform. This is our opportunity to frame a sound and robust defence of matters of public interest. So much has been acknowledged by the debate in the House of Commons. I trust that the debate and amendments that we frame in this House will endorse and strengthen the path of travel already taken. I pay tribute, as has everyone else, to the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, and to the noble Lord, Lord Mawhinney, and his distinguished Joint Committee on the draft Bill for the distance that they have already come on this important enterprise. A number of important elements, such as the single publication rule, the defence of honest opinion, and the protection for scientific and academic publications, are already addressed in the Bill. All these are welcome. But there remain many areas where further muscle is needed to beef up the protection of free speech in our society.

We live in a world with an abundance of fact, opinion and speculation, and the technical means to distribute them instantly round the world. It is inevitable that tensions will arise that are unique to the present day. As millions use Facebook and Twitter and write personal blogs, the exposure of so many to the dangers of legal action has suddenly become acute.

Here I declare an interest. I am a broadcaster and journalist. I am also a friend and broadcasting colleague of Dr Simon Singh. I have followed closely the case brought against him by the British Chiropractic Association in 2010, and I have given vocal and financial support to the campaign to have the libel laws reformed. I am also a member of English PEN and a subscriber to Index on Censorship. I pay tribute to the continuing efforts of these institutions to defend the freedom of speech and published comment in this country. As a journalist, I am aware of the extent to which the threat of legal action can inhibit the exposure of facts that are important for citizens to know. As an individual, I am conscious that by using Twitter I am exposed to further risk. A groundswell for the law to be strengthened in this House is upon us-and in support of our amendments.

I want to highlight two matters in particular, Clause 4 and the responsible publication of matters of public interest. There is also the issue of costs, which has been mentioned several times, and the extent to which they inhibit the possibility of justice being done. I want to give an example of how fast things now move. As recently as last week events drew our attention to the way in which the threat of libel is being used to silence reasonable criticism, and to a need for the defence of public interest to be clearly and unequivocally endorsed. It also demonstrates the dilemma of conflicting views of what truth and honest opinion are. This is what happened. The magazine, What Doctors Don't Tell You, is according to its editor Lynne McTaggart aimed at intelligent women between 35 and 55. I no longer belong to that target audience, but I cannot but be attracted by its October cover, which headlines "Sunbathe your diabetes away" and "I avoided my hysterectomy through diet". Inside it carried more seriously an article about the HPV vaccine, calling it,

"dubious ... ineffective, and a highly dangerous solution to the problems of cervical cancer".

On Monday last week Dr Simon Singh went on Twitter to criticise the magazine. He maintains that it is promoting advice that could potentially harm readers. On Tuesday the editor, writing on Facebook, called on subscribers to,

"fight the action of bully boys trying to stop us", and who want to push the magazine off the newsstands. Here is a case of conflicting statements, both claiming ownership of the truth. By Wednesday Dr Singh was threatened with legal action by COMAG, distributor of the magazine, which declared in an e-mail to him that it was unwilling to discuss the matter further and had within three days already instructed legal counsel.

The magazine, What Doctors Don't Tell You, was also the subject of criticism by last week's Radio 4 programme "Inside Health" in which a GP called it "ridiculously alarmist" and "frankly wrong". BBC lawyers, who were consulted before transmission, advised that because the editor Lynne McTaggart also spoke on the programme, it was giving fair and balanced coverage of the issue. The fact remains that a single individual, Dr Singh, a person who incidentally had to remortgage his house to defend himself against the chiropractors, remained exposed to the threat of libel from COMAG, a distribution company half-owned by Condé Nast.

I relate this particular matter to address two issues that need addressing further in the Bill: the issue of time and the issue of cost. "The law's delay" has been common currency in this country since Hamlet first used the phrase and has become laughably familiar ever since Jarndyce and Jarndyce was mocked by Dickens in Bleak House. Today with the social media's potential to prompt inhibiting threats of libel there is ever-pressing need for such cases to be heard promptly and resolved with the least possible time lapse which, of course, brings me to the matter of costs. Any law of the land that does not provide for equal access to justice for all is a flawed law. It has become clear that individuals and small-scale institutions posting opinions on web forums can be sued for their opinions. Mumsnet, Legal Beagles, and Carer Watch have all been sued for posting an opinion. In a statement made in November 2011, Dr Peter Wilmhurst said that he had,

"spent almost all my free time for 4 years and much money defending 3 defamation claims brought in England by an American medical device corporation, NMT Medical".

NMT used the law to silence important medical evidence-based opinion. The case consumed time and money. Such abuse of the libel laws calls for radical remedy. This is our opportunity, building on the sturdy work of the Joint Committee and the Defamation Bill itself, to make that remedy robust and enduring.

Annotations

Steve Hinks
Posted on 10 Oct 2012 9:04 pm (Report this annotation)

We didn't want our daughter to have the HPV vaccine because she had a severe adverse reaction to her first MMR vaccine. The school nurse persuaded my wife to sign the consent form because 'it is nothing like the MMR vaccine and quite safe'. We made a huge mistake. We should have read the NHS Choices 'Medicine Guide for Cervarix' which they hide.Our daughter has been very seriously ill for 17 months including a coma like period for 13 weeks which no one can explain. Every complaint to the NHS, DoH, Ombudsman, GMC, MHRA, etc meets a total brick wall. The DoH website even tells us 'parents shouldn't be concerned about the coma girl'. The coma girls parents are VERY, VERY CONCERNED for their daughter but nobody listens.