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News and Comment

British Medical Association votes unanimously for robust libel law reform

27 June 2011

British Medical Association (BMA) members voted on libel reform at their Annual Representatives Meeting

British Medical Association (BMA) members voted to adopt into policy a call for a stronger public interest defence and a restriction on the ability of commercial organisations to sue for libel at their annual representatives meeting (ARM) today in Cardiff. 

A webcast of the conference debate is available here (Debate on libel reform starts at at 4:08:40)

Dr Antony Lempert, Shropshire BMA, put forward the motion1 in support of their member cardiologist Dr Peter Wilmshurst who was sued in 2006 by US medical devices company NMT Medical, over comments he made about the conduct and results of a heart device trial. (An interview with Dr Lempert before the debate can be seen here)

Dr Lempert told BMA members that scientific discourse is premised on robust debate. He said: “Current English defamation laws stifle scientific debate thereby running the risk of harming patients. Fear of bankruptcy from libel action leads doctors and journalists to self-censor and remain silent. This is even the case regarding important matters of public concern and even where the information in the public domain may be deliberately misleading and harmful to patients. Today British doctors have sent out a strong message to the Government that the defamation laws need urgent reform in the interests of scientific integrity and of patient safety.”

Dr Peter Wilmshurst responded to the vote to say: "I am very pleased that the BMA conference has unanimously agreed that there is the need for reform of the libel laws, and in particular it supports reforms that protect doctors, scientists and others reporting information that is in the public interest."

Dr Evan Harris of the Libel Reform Campaign who spoke in the debate today said: “I’m delighted that there was overwhelming support from people who are victims themselves of the chill on scientific discussion, or know someone who has been affected. It’s hard enough to get something published in a scientific peer-reviewed journal, without finding they want to change your words or pull the article as a result of libel bullying.”

Tracey Brown, Managing Director of Sense About Science said: “As a parliamentary committee scrutinises the Government’s draft Defamation Bill, we welcome the BMA’s calls for a strong public interest defence. People like Dr Wilmshurst should not have to risk bankruptcy to defend their right to give a professional opinion.”

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