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Evidence matters to the public

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Plant Science Panel

Insecticides, biofuels, GMOs …

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'The Ugly Truth'

by Tracey Brown, director of Sense About Science

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The general election 2010 Free Speech hustings

 The Libel Reform Campaign hosted the general election 2010 Free Speech hustings at the Free Word Centre on Wednesday 21st April 2010. Places at the event were quickly filled and we organised satellite events in London, Nottingham and Liverpool.

We started the evening with a round up of the campaign so far and a reminder to everyone there - supporters and politicians - of the need to keep pushing for reform in the weeks and months ahead. John Kampfner of Index on Censorship introduced the speakers and started the debate. The speakers were Evan Harris (Liberal Democrats), Dominic Grieve (Conservatives) and Michael Wills (Labour).

Free Speech HustingsFree speech hustings panel

All three speakers acknowledged that as a result of our campaign it was clear that the libel laws had a negative impact on free expression and there is a need for a public interest defence. They all agreed that libel law reform is necessary and pressing and on the need to protect scientific discussions from libel chill. What form the reform should take and how quickly it could happen was different for each of them.

The Lib Dems have the strongest and most specific manifesto commitment to reform said Evan Harris. Dominic Grieve said if the Conservatives get in, he wants to consult before creating the package of reforms that would lead to the most satisfactory outcome. He said it is clear the libel laws are acting as a fetter to discussions but the Tories don't want to jump on the bandwagon and get things wrong. He stressed people must always have the right to redress if they are wronged.

Free Speech HustingsMichael Wills said problems that were not apparent before but have become apparent because of the campaign made Labour realise the huge damage being done. He accepted the lack of a public interest defence is a real problem and said Labour will enact a statutory public interest defence if elected and that reforms should be enacted straight away.

Harris said preventing corporations from suing is a vital reform. He said a shifting of the burden of proof for corporations - making them show malice before they can take a case - would be useful. Wills said it is wrong that large corporations use the libel laws to go after individuals to stifle criticism. Grieve has seen no evidence for corporations suing being a problem but said we are at the start of the process of libel reform and that they are going to listen to what everyone has to say. He did say, in response to Simon's case, that he thought professional societies should not be allowed to sue.

In response to a question from the audience all speakers agreed reversing the burden of proof is not something they will be considering, because, they said, 'You can't prove a negative'. Harris said it could be enacted only for corporations.

On costs - Grieve said Labour's proposal on cutting CFAs (conditional fee arrangements) was a gut reaction and the wrong approach. He thinks it might prevent people from being able to bring a libel action. He thinks success fees will come down from 100% but wants to consult further. Harris said we shouldn't accept half hearted non-evidence based reform. Wills said people who voted against the reduction in success fees should come up with another measure to reduce costs, which are one of the biggest problems with the libel laws.

The three speakers agreed with a questioner from the floor that libel reform seemed to be a consensus issue and could be something cross party politicians could work on together in a hung Parliament.

The people I spoke to afterwards had enjoyed the event. They were interested especially in hearing the politicians say the case for libel reform in the public interest has been made. Dr Liz Bell of the Physiological Society told me it was how events should be run - democratic, with everybody getting involved. "I think your event was quite brilliant, well done! I'm still buzzing from it."

A straw poll of the audience at the event and online showed the Lib Dem's Evan Harris won the debate. Simon Singh said: "There are clearly differences between the parties when it comes to libel reform, but we are now at a position where all three parties acknowledgement that there are serious problems and they are all committed to libel reform. A year ago, this would have been unthinkable. Campaign supporters can be proud of what we have achieved, but we still need to maintain the pressure on politicians through and after the election, so that manifesto promises are implemented."

 

More coverage:

The Guardian online Where the parties stand on free speech

The Press Gazette Lib Dems would tackle Tesco and Barclays libel bullying

 

Listen again:

The Pod Delusion The Libel Reform Campaign Free Speech Hustings

 

Free speech hustings

The Libel Reform Campaign is hosting the official "Free Speech Hustings" of the General Election 2010 and you're invited. A Labour Party representative, Dominic Grieve from the Conservatives, and Evan Harris from the Liberal Democrats will go head to head over libel law reform and protecting our freedom of speech.

The Free Speech Hustings will bring together scientists, writers, human rights activists, journalists, bloggers and most importantly...voters - we want you to put the difficult questions to the candidates about free speech and libel reform, counter-terrorism, privacy and religious hatred.

21 April at 6.30pm at the Free Word Centre, 60 Farringdon Road, London, EC1R 3GA

If you can't make it to London, a number of satellite events have been organised around the country.

Nottingham

Nottingham Skeptics in the Pub have organised a satellite Free Speech Hustings event on Wednesday evening at 6.30 pm. Come along to watch the hustings in London live and stay for a discussion of what the politicians had to say about libel reform and free speech.

Details:

Upstairs in the conference room

The Navigation, 6 Wilford Street, Nottingham, NG2 1AA.

Email sitp.nottingham@googlemail.com or contact Andy on 07711 934154 for more information or to book a place.

Liverpool

Merseyside Skeptics Society have arranged a satellite Free Speech Hustings event in Liverpool on Wednesday evening at 6.30 pm. Come along to watch the hustings in London live and stay for a discussion of what the politicians had to say on libel reform and free speech.

Details:

The Crown Hotel, Lime Street, Liverpool

Email michael.marshall@merseysideskeptics.org.uk for more information or to book a place.

And there is a London over-flow event as the Free Word Centre is now fully booked:

The Old Bank of England, 194 Fleet Street London EC4Y

Starting at 6.30pm. Hosted by Padraig Reidy, the News Editor of Index on Censorship.

This satellite event is in association with Westminster Skeptics.