Martin Bright

The Growing Campaign on Libel

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Very good to see Nick Cohen banging the drum for the reform of the libel laws in today's Observer. He raises the case of the mathematicians who dismantled the economic models of the bankers who destroyed the UK's financial system. Ministers have urged them to speak out, but they are wisely wary of the libel laws and the way they have been used by chiropracters against their fellow rationalist Simon Singh.

Here's Nick: "The naive, who suppose that the law would protect mathematicians who told the truth, do not understand the wretched condition of freedom of speech in England. The exorbitant costs of libel actions are far beyond the means of all academics and, increasingly, most newspapers; Simon Singh can only fight the chiropractors because he is the author of four international bestsellers. As important, the law is biased against defendants and judges put the worst possible interpretation on a writer's words. In all likelihood, a mathematician who criticised the models of Goldman Sachs, say, or the Royal Bank of Scotland would find himself in court defending assertions he never realised he had made.

Thus, after the worst crash since 1929, and with the world economy in crisis, people who know what went wrong and why it went wrong are too frightened to go public. If their fear does not make the case for reform of the libel laws on American lines, I don't know what will. We should have free debate on matters of public importance, as long as writers are not malicious and do not display a wild disregard for the truth."

There is a growing recognition that tthe libel laws are becoming an embarrassment to Britain. With large organisations consistently folding to the merest whiff of a threat from Carter Ruck, free speech (and the scientific principle) is seriosuly under threat. The latest to pay up is the BBC, which has just settled with the MCB's "Secretary General" Muhammad Abdul Bari. It is now the case that local newspapers almost never fight libel actions and it won't be long before the same is the case for our struggling nationals.

I have had my own encounters with these pernicous laws and urge everyone to read the details of the important parliamentary debate on the mattter last December. There is the beginnings of a cross-party consensus on this issue: Denis MacShane, Michael Gove, Evan Harris and Norman Lamb all spoke eloquently during the exchanges. Such is the power of these laws that I would advise anyone referring or linking to my battles with the Iraqi-British billionaire Nadhmi Auchi should refer only to the contents of this debate, which is covered by parliamentary privilege.