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News and Comment

Libel threats gag Citizens Advice, Nature and others

9 November 2011

Citizens Advice has spent an entire year’s research and campaign contingency budget to libel-proof a report that it still can’t publish in full.

At a parliamentary meeting hosted by the Libel Reform Campaign, Citizens Advice will tell MPs that the threat of libel action from firms employed by High Street stores has prevented them from warning the public as clearly and strongly as they would like that demands for payment under civil recovery schemes may be breaking consumer protection regulations.

The revelation comes on the same day that the scientific journal Nature finds itself in the High Court in a libel action that has prevented it from discussing the behaviour of a journal editor for 2 years.

Citizens Advice and Nature join Mumsnet, Liberty, Which?, the Publishers Association, Global Witness, Facebook and libel case defendants to tell MPs that reform of the laws must include a more robust public interest defence and legislation is needed urgently to prevent further intimidation of public debate.

Citizens Advice tells MPs today that the full story of agents, some of them law firms, demanding compensation from people accused of shop lifting and threatening civil litigation if they don’t pay up has been kept from the public because of threats of libel action. More than 750,000 people have received such a 'civil recovery' demand. A quarter of all recipients of these demands are teenagers, whilst others have serious mental health problems. The Law Commission agreed with Citizens Advice that the practice is not in accordance with consumer protection regulations.

Citizens Advice, the national body for Citizens Advice Bureaux, had to battle threats of libel action to publish two reports into this practice. Libel threats forced Citizens Advice to limit what it said about the behaviour of the agents. In 2009 Citizens Advice had to spend their entire campaign and research contingency budget on legal advice on the reports, meaning they could not research into other issues. Many hours of senior staff time was taken up dealing with legal matters.

Today is also the opening day of a libel case brought against scientific journal Nature by Professor Mohamed El Naschie for a November 2008 news article reporting El Naschie’s retirement as editor-in-chief of the journal Chaos, Solitons and Fractals and highlighted controversies during his tenure. Nature has been preparing for this case for two years meaning hundreds of hours of staff time have gone into this instead of carrying out other investigations. Andrew Caldecott QC described the case last week as a “fundamental issue of freedom of scientific expression.”

Representatives of community groups, civil rights groups and publishers will tell MPs that the libel laws allow rich and powerful claimants to bully them into shutting down discussion on matters in the public interest. Dr Simon Singh and Dr Peter Wilmshurst will tell MPs about being dragged through the courts for years to defend their words.

Richard Dunstan, Social Policy Officer, Citizens Advice: The potentially huge cost of defending a libel action - however unjustified that action might be - hands well-resourced corporations a powerful weapon against third sector organisations, such as Citizens Advice, trying to shine a spotlight on practices that are unfair, detrimental to the public interest, or even illegal: just the threat of a libel action can be enough to shut down criticism.”

Philip Campbell PhD, Editor-in-Chief, Nature speaking in October 2011 on the publication of the report from the Joint Scrutiny Committee of the Draft Defamation Bill: It’s essential to the public trust in science that scientific integrity is upheld and that bad behaviour is brought to light. Nature has a strong track record in these respects. Even so, we are hindered from doing proper justice to this task, and to the innocent researchers who get caught up in cases of misconduct, because of the unreasonable burdens placed on us by the English libel laws. It is unquestionably in the public interest that the legislation should be urgently revised to achieve a better balance of interests between those accused of misconduct and those who should be better able to write about them.”

Justine Roberts, Co-Founder and CEO, Mumsnet: While the draft Defamation Bill was a very good start, it didn’t go far enough to protect freedom of expression, particularly in the online environment. Websites and hosts of user-generated comment risk becoming tactical targets for those who wish to clamp down on criticism or investigation of their activities. For the health of public debate in this country, it’s crucial that the Government continues to pursue this issue actively, rather than kicking it into the long grass.”

Simon Singh, science writer and defendant in BCA v Singh: “Many doctors, scientists, academics and journalists (like myself) have suffered at the hands of English libel law. We have lost money, had our careers disrupted and had severe stress put on our family lives for one, two or more years, and just because we were raising serious concerns about matters of genuine public interest. And the problem continues, with libel threats and actions continuing to silence honest criticism. The Government needs to act urgently and pass an effective Defamation Bill at the first available opportunity, as promised in their manifestos. We urgently need a libel law that balances the right to reputation with the right to free speech.”

Martyn Hocking, editor of Which? magazine: Public interest should be at the heart of the Government’s reforms. We are getting to the point where even responsible media hesitate before publishing research or expert opinion for fear of being sued."

Jonathan Heawood, Director, English PEN: “Every month waiting for libel reform brings another string of cases that should never have been launched. This week a writer is facing court over a book review they posted on Amazon. It's time to address this now, before more authors and publishers are silenced.”

John Kampfner, Chief Executive, Index on Censorship: “In the last decade, journalists have been hampered from exposing those with power because of our restrictive libel laws. With media reform high on the agenda, the Government must include the Defamation Bill in the next Queen’s speech.”

Tracey Brown, Managing Director, Sense About Science: Scientists expect publications like Nature to investigate and write about controversies within the scientific community. We need to see a Bill that has a clear, strong public interest defence and a high threshold for bringing a libel case, and that can't come soon enough.”

Dr Evan Harris, policy advisor to the Libel Reform Campaign: "The key to stopping the chill of libel closing down vital public interest discussion is to have such clear defences, and such clear hurdles of showing real harm, that cases like this don't even get off the ground and threats of libel suits are seen as empty."

For more information please contact Síle Lane, slane@senseaboutscience.org, 020 7490 9590, 07719391814 or Mike Harris mike@libelreform.org, 07974 838468


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