Last week I attended the launch of the Campaign for Libel Reform, a coalition of Index on Censorship, English Pen, and Sense About Science. Editors, writers, journalists, scientists and comedians came together to sign a petition demanding that Government address the problem of libel laws in this country, which stifle free speech, suppress research findings, gag journalists and silence critics. You can read their report describing how libel laws damage free speech here. The coalition is expected to grow to include human rights groups and other interested parties over the next year, but in the meantime it desperately needs YOU.
The Government needs to understand that England's libel laws are broken. They won't wake up to this fact by themselves - you need to tell them. Visit www.libelreform.org/sign to add your name to the petition for reform. I've signed, and I also used the website to write to my MP. Here's my modded version of the email drafted by libelreform.org:
Dear Richard Younger-Ross MP,
I am writing as one of your constituents, as a writer, and as a proponent of an open and transparent democracy who despairs at the repressive influence that England's libel laws are having. In recent days I have listened to journalists, editors, comedians, writers and scientists who have seen their work censored by wealthy interests.
I don't just believe that English libel law cripples free expression both in the UK and abroad - as a colleague of Simon Singh and Ben Goldacre, I know it does.
Firstly, I would urge you to sign cross-party EDM 423 Libel Law Reform to send a clear message from Parliament that you are committed to reforming these unjust laws.
Freedom to criticise and question, in strong terms and without malice, is the cornerstone of argument and debate, whether in scholarly journals, on websites, in newspapers or elsewhere. This fact is enshrined in the seat of our democracy - Parliament - a Middle English word that describes discourse.
Our current libel laws inhibit debate and stifle free expression. 90% of cases are won by claimants. The cost of a libel trial is often in excess of Â£1 million and 140 times more expensive than libel cases in mainland Europe; publishers (and individual journalists, authors, academics, performers and blog-writers) cannot risk such extortionate costs, which means that they are forced to back down, withdraw and apologise for material they believe is true, fair and important to the public.
The English PEN and Index on Censorship report has shown that there is an urgent need to amend the law to provide a stronger, wider and more accessible public interest defence. Sense About Science has shown that the threat of libel action leads to self-censorship in scientific and medical writing.
I would urge you to back the campaign by English PEN, Index on Censorship and Sense About Science for a Libel Reform Bill.
Please, please visit www.libelreform.org/sign and add your name to the list - the goal is 100,000 signatures.
UPDATE: Richard Younger-Ross has written me lengthy reply stating his wholehearted support for the libel reform campaign!
nice one - I attended the Parliamentary launch the next day, where luminaries such as Nick Cohen and Jack of Kent heard luminaries such as Ben Goldacre and Evan Harris elaborate on the need for political action in the fight to reform libel laws.
What will be crucial in the coming months is that we don't allow this issue to get 'squeezed' out of the news agenda - the more that people blogtwitterfacebook about it the better!