Seeing as I am concerned about the state of UK libel laws, especially their effect on free and informed scientific discourse, I asked my MP, the new conservative MP for Crewe and Nantwich, Edward Timpson, to sign EDM 423. EDM 423 was proposed by Dr Evan Harris MP, Lib Dem MP for Oxford West and Abingdon, and “notes that human rights activists, scientists, writers and journalists are prevented from publishing, and the public prevented from reading, matters of strong public interest due to the chilling effect of English libel law“
Timpson is not without experience in legal matters, as prior to becoming an MP, Timpson was a family law barrister. So anyway, I asked him sign EDM 423. Yesterday, I received a letter from him, explaining (sadly) why he won’t sign EDM 423 😦
Here it is:
Thank you for writing to me about EDM 423 and libel law reform. I understand your concerns on this issue. It is important that those who contribute so much to research and culture in this country do not feel restrictred from publishing interllectually challenging and informative articles. Fear of libel action should not curb debate by scientists, academics and journalists. Freedom of expression is the hallmark of a free society and must be strongly protected.
If libel cases do succeed, the costs are often so crippling to defendants that even large newspapers are in diffculty in resisting some claims. It is evident that Britain has become an attractive place for individuals to bring about specualative libel action since lawyers will often bear the brunt of the costs in exchange for potential awards available to winning litigants.
I do believe, however, that we must be careful when changing libel law itself. People have the right not to be defamed unless necessary, and changes to this law should not risk this principle. I believe that the burden of proof should remain on individuals who make defamatory claims about other people to justify their asertions about others. For this reason, I do not feel that I can sign EDM 423.
Let me assure you that my colleagues on the Shadow Justice Team will continue to press the Government on this issue, to ensure that any changes to the law adequately protects individuals without placing too great a burden on, for example, scientists, academics and journlists. Thank you for taking the time to write to me.
Edward Timpson MP
TBPH, after the first two paragraphs I thought I had it in the bag. He seems to agree that there is a problem, but won’t sign it in order to protect the defamed – which is fair enough – but I had thought that EDM 423 had provision in to to deal with precisely that:
…while individual reputation is protected against malicious or reckless smears, lawful free expression is not chilled and there is a fully effective public interest defence for both scholarship and responsible journalism.
So – that’s that really,
Just thought I’d share.