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Nature wins libel case

6th July 2012

Nature has won the libel case against them brought by Mohammed El Naschie over an article critical of the peer-review process at a journal where El Naschie served as editor and published many of his own papers.

Nature’s 2008 article is back online today http://www.nature.com/news/2008/081126/full/456432a.html. Mrs Sharp described the article as "a public interest story, par excellencein her judgment. El Naschie said during the trial "senior people are above this childish, vain practice of peer review.” Mrs Justice Sharp said today “I am satisfied that his papers were not the subject of any, or any proper, peer review at all."

Nature succeeded on all three of its pleaded defences – justification (truth), honest comment and ‘Reynolds’ privilege (the “responsible journalism” defence).

The judgement was handed down at Bristol Crown Court on Friday 6th July at 9.45am. It states: “My conclusions are that the Article is substantially true, whether one considers the meanings complained of by the Claimant or justified by the Defendants, that it contains comments which are defensible as honest comment, and that it was the product of responsible journalism, so that the defence of Reynolds privilege succeeds.”

The case has taken 3 years at a huge time and financial cost to Nature. The Defamation Bill published by the Government in May would not have made a difference to this case.

Niri Shan head of media law at Taylor Wessing, the solicitors representing Nature in this case said: “The judgment is an important victory for free speech, and is a shot in the arm for the public interest defence of qualified privilege. Having said that, the fact that the claimant was able to bring this matter to trial highlights the urgent need for libel reform in the area of science reporting, as the law (as it currently stands), is stifling scientific debate. Moreover, even the current reforms being considered by Parliament do not go far enough.”

Quirin Schiermeier, Senior Reporter at Nature, and second defendant in the trial, said: “This long-awaited judgement takes a huge load off my mind. It is powerful confirmation of the high journalistic standards we apply at Nature. It is also reminder of the value of freedom of speech in civil society.”

Tim Appenzeller, Chief Magazine Editor, Nature said: "This judgment is a great vindication for Nature's journalism and for our reporter, Quirin Schiermeier. It leaves no doubt about the care with which the story was reported and edited, and about the importance of this kind of coverage."

Dr Philip Campbell, Editor-in-Chief, Nature said: “Nature has vigorously defended this article for over three years and we are all delighted that the court has found our journalism to be honest, justified and in the public interest.”

Tracey Brown, Sense About Science: “The Bill published by the Government would not have made a difference to this case. A battle to defend your words that takes 3 years, at huge financial cost, is out of the reach of most people. While the libel laws are complicated the issues aren’t: do we want a society where people don’t speak out, or one where free and open discussion is possible? The Government needs to bite the bullet and draft a new public interest defence to achieve the better and workable protection for free speech that has been promised.”

Kirsty Hughes, Index on Censorship: “There are two big issues the bill must change: we need a proper public interest defence without which open scientific and political debate risks remaining seriously constrained. There’s also huge public support for a bar on corporations suing individuals for libel. Yet, the government has ignored repeated calls from two parliamentary committees for a higher hurdle before corporations can sue. There’s still time to get this right and protect ordinary citizens from corporations some of whom see libel claims as part of their marketing budget to defend their brands.”

Heather Söderlind, English PEN: “At present, the fear of libel chills our publishing sector. Authors self-censor, and the vast amount of money spent annually fighting legal issues mean there is less money to commission new books.  A proper public interest defence, and measures to strike out trivial claims, are essential to unshackle our publishing industry.”

Simon Singh, defendant in BCA v Singh: “My case and similar libel actions helped spark the campaign for libel reform, but the proposed Defamation Bill still fails to offer protection to anyone who wants to write about medicine or science in newspapers, jurnals or a blog. There is no public interest defence. The Government needs to address these issues or the result will be a semi-impotent Bill.”

Dr Evan Harris, Policy Advisor to the Libel Reform Campaign: “It is sad to see parliamentary time being spent on a bill which so far fails to live up to the promises made to deliver effective libel reform made in all three of the party's manifestos.”

Coverage:

Nature Publishing Group wins long-running libel trial Nature news

Nature journal libel victory prompts libel reform call BBC news

Don't settle science in court PULSE

Nature libel verdict 'a victory for free speech' The Guardian

Nature wins three-year El Naschie libel battle Press Gazette

Nature wins libel battle with Egyptian physicist Times Higher Education

Nature Publishing Group wins libel trial New Scientist

Nature journal wins libel case, highlights holes in UK defamation law Wired