Friday 12 February 2010


Somewhat off-topic today but I've just been sent something and I thought I'd pass it on through my blog. It is hugely relevant to writers of all sorts, as well as in my view being a matter of public concern. Whether you are interested or not and whether you want to pursue it is entirely up to you. I happen to think it's important as I don't like things that stifle free speech and I think that Simon Singh's experience has been fascinating and appalling.

This was the message that Simon passed around and I am passing it to you:

Dear Friends,
I’ve had an idea – an unusual idea, but I think it might just work.

As you know, England’s chilling libel laws need to be reformed. One way to help achieve this is for 100,000 people to sign the petition for libel reform before the political parties write their manifestos for the election. We have 17,000 signatures, but we really need 100,000, and we need your help to get there.

My idea is simple: if everyone who has already signed up persuades just one more person each week to sign the petition then we will reach our goal within a month!

One person per week is all we need, but please spread the word as much as you can. In fact, if you persuade 10 people to sign up then email me ( <>) and I promise to thank you by printing your name in my next book… which I will start writing as soon as I have put my own libel case behind me. I cannot say when this will be, but it is a very real promise. My only caveat is that I will limit this to the first thousand people who recruit ten supporters.

When persuading your friends remember to tell them:
(a) English libel laws have been condemned by the UN Human Rights Committee.

(b) These laws gag scientists, bloggers and journalists who want to discuss matters of genuine public interest (and public health!).

(c) Our laws give rise to libel tourism, whereby the rich and the powerful (Saudi billionaires, Russian oligarchs and overseas corporations) come to London to sue writers because English libel laws are so hostile to responsible journalism. (In fact, it is exactly because English libel laws have this global impact that we welcome signatories to the petition from around the world.)

(d) Vested interests can use their resources to bully and intimidate those who seek to question them. The cost of a libel trial in England is 100 times more expensive than the European average and typically runs to over 1 million.

(e) Three separate ongoing libel cases involve myself and two medical researchers raising concerns about three medical treatments. We face losing 1 million each. In future, why would anyone else raise similar concerns? If these health matters are not reported, then the public is
put at risk.

My experience has been sobering. I’ve had to spend 100,000 to defend my writing and have put my life on hold for almost two years. However, the prospect of reforming our libel laws keeps me cheerful.

Thanks so much for your support. We’ve only got one shot at this – so I hope you can persuade 1 (or maybe 10) friends, family and colleagues to sign.

Massive thanks,


The Libel Reform Campaign is a coalition of English PEN, Index on Censorship and Sense About Science. So far, 188 MPs have signed our Parliamentary Early Day Motion calling for libel reform and the Justice Secretary Jack Straw has formed a working party that the Libel Reform Coalition is represented on.
I am now off to sign it myself.


fairyhedgehog said...

I got a copy of this through a friend and I've signed and blogged it. I also did the emailing your MP bit.

I'm glad you've put it on your blog and I've linked to your post.

Jesse Owen said...

I've signed the petition and emailed my local MP.

Queenie said...

You've persuaded me to sign up. I also emailed my MP - she's quite good at responding positively to requests to sign EDMs (I guess it's a fairly easy thing to do). Thanks for the heads-up.

Go away google said...

There's something very messed up, if predictable, about the workings of libel and privacy laws here. On the one hand we’ve got libel tourism for the international rich, on the other hand tabloid newspapers are free to abuse free speech as callously as they wish, and destroy several lives a week by reporting as salaciously as possible that some random holder of a very minor public position goes to sex parties, or whatever, in his free time. (I sometimes have to read the tabloids for one aspect of my work, and far more harmless nobodies are affected in this way than famous people who have money and resources).

So it seems like a choice of more censorship – and more libel tourism etc – or less censorship – and the less scrupulous parts of the media can rampage at will.

My natural instinct always says ‘less censorship’ so I’m signing the petition, but I’m doing a stint on my newspaper-related job in a couple of weeks, and that will have me wishing that, figuratively, someone would put a bucket over the News of the World’s collective head.

Mary Hoffman said...

My MP is David Cameron but I emailed him anyway.

Colette Martin said...

Unfortunately mi signature can't help as a US citizen, but I completely support this effort. I have only recently been learnign about libel laws here int he US -- and it's sobering and scary.

catdownunder said...

Libel laws are supposed to be there to prevent anyone wrongfully brought into 'hatred, ridicule or contempt'. They have been abused for years here too but that has not satisfied our politicians.
There were some recent changes to the Electoral Act in South Australia - supported by both sides of politics - requiring anyone commenting on the election or those participating in it to give their full name and address. The legislation applies to Letters to the Editor of any newspaper, blogs, tweets, SMS messages, radio, television etc. Despite a public outcry all that has happened is that the Attorney-General has undertaken to repeal the legislation after the election and not apply it during the election. Expert legal opinion is that (a) it can be applied and (b) it does not need to repealed and may end up being modified rather than repealed.
It is clearly designed to reduce public debate and silence critics.
Combined with the laws of libel and slander government here now has very powerful means of silencing us -
for anyone interested. It is a lesson in why there is a need for people to be aware of what is going on and to act responsibly. (As regular readers of my blog will be aware I have already been 'requested' not to make my own pretty mild views known!)

catdownunder said...

The link did not go in for some reason - sorry

JaneF said...

Thanks for the link to the petition. I've just signed. Stifling good honest criticism is never a good thing, I think. I'm sure there are some very unsavoury characters being protected by these laws.

Steve Wright said...

I've lurked on this blog from time to time, but am popping my head up now to say I've signed this petition (and emailed my MP, for whatever good that might do.)

The libel law of England was a bad joke when A. P. Herbert was poking fun at it, and A. P. Herbert's been dead nearly forty years. More than time for a change, I think.