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'The Ugly Truth'

by Tracey Brown, director of Sense About Science

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Government chooses business interests over citizens

How can it be right that companies delivering public services can’t be criticised by citizens?

At a debate in the House of Commons on Tuesday 16th April 2013 the Government rejected attempts to reform the libel laws to limit companies' ability to use sue individuals. The reform would have asked companies to show they had been harmed before they would be allowed to take it case. It would also have put the Derbyshire principle, which prevents public bodies from suing individuals for libel into law, and would have extended this principle to private companies performing public functions. Labour pushed the Government on this clause and forced a vote which the Government won 298 to 230.

But Minister for Justice Helen Grant MP said the Government would “actively consider” amendments to the Defamation Bill that would require corporations to show financial loss before they can sue for libel, following pressure from Shadow Minister for Justice Sadiq Khan MP. The Defamation Bill will be debated in the House of Lords on Tuesday 23rd April.

Tracey Brown, Sense About Science: “We are pleased that so many MPs recognise the need for corporations to show actual financial harm and grateful to the MPs who worked for this. While it is deeply disappointing that the corporations’ clause has been removed, their efforts have at least led the Government to concede that this should be revisited in the Lords. It cannot be right that the court is not asked to consider whether companies have faced loss, or are likely to, before a case can go ahead. It cannot be right that citizens can’t criticise delivery of public services whether by private companies or by the Government.”

Kirsty Hughes, Chief Executive, Index on Censorship: "It is a very unwelcome blot on an important bill that the Government voted to allow corporations to continue to pressurise and sue in ways that chill free speech"

Jo Glanville, Director, English PEN: “The Government needs to do more than "actively consider" amendments.  Ministers in the House of Lords should now table an early amendment, requiring corporations to show financial loss before they sue.  We're depending on the Lords now to deliver the reform that all the parties signed up to. It's essential that companies are no longer allowed to exploit libel law to bully whistleblowers into silence. This has always been a key demand for the campaign.”

Simon Singh, defendant in British Chiropractic Association v Singh:  “The majority of the cases that galvanized public support for libel reform involved corporations, so the final Defamation Bill must include a clause that limits the powers for corporations to bully their critics into silence. The proposal on the table is reasonable, modest and fair. Ignoring this proposal on corporations would leave the door open to further abuses of libel law by those who want to block the public’s access to information concerning everything from consumer issues to medical treatments.”

Media coverage

Tuesday 16th April

The Independent: Ministers make U-turn on Defamation Bill

The Guardian: Key libel reforms thwarted as Conservatives block Defamation Bill

The Financial Times: Companies face tighter libel laws (£)

Daily Mail: 'Climbdown' on libel reform amid claims new laws are strangling free speech

City A.M: Libel law reforms watered down after Commons vote

Monday 15th April

The Independent: MP plotting changes to libel laws Sir Edward Garnier earns thousands as a libel lawyer

Friday 12th April

The Guardian: Defamation Bill faces fresh attack from Conservatives

Daily Mail: Tory MP bids to block freedom of speech reform to libel law that would stop companies silencing their critics


Tory MP bids to block freedom of speech reform to libel law that would stop companies silencing their critics