The Reform of British Libel Laws: Best Scarcely-Noted News of the Month

 

Want some good news? I knew you did. The British government is at long last moving to reform its libel laws. 

British libel law is an international scandal. The incentive it offers to libel tourists around the world has had a stifling effect on freedom of expression everywhere. David Allen Green explains the issue, in a remarkably reserved tone, in the New Statesman. (The key point: You’re guilty until proven innocent.)

 This 2010 article by Simon Singh will give you a sense of what’s at stake:

On Tuesday morning I will appear at the Court of Appeal in the latest round of a libel battle that has already lasted almost two years, and which could easily continue for another two years. It has cost me more than £100,000 in legal fees and this could double before we reach a final judgment.

What did I write that was so terrible? I published a newspaper article raising concerns about chiropractors who use spinal manipulation to treat children for conditions such as colic, ear infections and asthma. I thought that it was important that parents were aware of the shortage of evidence surrounding such treatments, but the British Chiropractic Association disagreed and sued me personally for libel.

Even more chilling is the famous case against Rachel Ehrenfeld:

In 2005, Saudi billionaire Khalid bin Mahfouz sued me for libel in London; in a heavily researched book, I had alleged that he funded Al Qaeda. Mahfouz was a one-man wrecking crew of Americans’ free speech rights, who after 9/11 sued or threatened to sue dozens of American writers in plaintiff-friendly English courts. When Mahfouz came after me, I refused to acknowledge the British court, asserting my rights as a U.S. citizen. Nevertheless I was rendered a judgment by default and ordered to pay Mahfouz more than $250,000 and destroy the book.

The Libel Reform Campaign’s account of those who have been silenced should leave you in no doubt that the proposed reforms are reason to rejoice, no matter where you live.

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  1. Profile Photo Member
    @CharlesMark

    Beware journalists’ special pleading about libel laws. For every honourable reporter there are dozens of unscrupulous hacks looking to break a story without regard to the effects on the people targeted.And remember truth is and always has been an absolute defence.Also remember the enormous financial risks taken on by individuals going to court to vindicate their reputations against deep-pocketed media organisations .

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  2. Profile Photo Member
    @

    Christopher Hitchens once remarked in a discussion with Shashi Tharoor that he did not miss British libel law when he moved to the United States.

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  3. Profile Photo Editor
    @Claire
    Charles Mark: Beware journalists’ special pleading about libel laws … And remember truth is and always has been an absolute defence.Also remember the enormous financial risks taken on by individuals going to court to vindicate their reputations against deep-pocketed media organisations . · Mar 23 at 2:11am

    Deep-pocketed media organizations? The reality of many British media organizations–and I absolutely know this from experience–is that they’re so afraid of being wiped out by a libel suit that they will refrain from publishing well-sourced stories because they can’t afford to defend themselves against the nuisance libel suit they reckon is coming. In 2008, the most expensive libel action cost defendants £3,243,980 and the average cost for the 20 most expensive trials was £753,676.95. The average cost of a trial is 140 times the European equivalent. The defense alone–whether or not they win–would put them out of business. Truth is hardly an “absolute defense” if the law says–and it does–“guilty until proven innocent.” And this absolutely limits what it published outside of England and Wales, too.

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  4. Profile Photo Member
    @DuaneOyen

    This is a tremendous development. I wonder if it has a chance of being implemented. This is a bit of a sacred cow, just as is the plaintiffs’ bar resistance to “loser pays” and medical malpractice panels in the US.

    You can have a healthy tort system without making it punitive.

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