This MP’s not for turning: My MP still won’t sign EDM 423.

March 10, 2010

You may have seen this post, where I showed that my Tory MP, Edward Timpson, had declined to sign Early Day Motion 423. This is the EDM tabelled by Dr Evan Harris MP (Lib Dem Science spokesman) regarding the update of Britain’s rather unfair libel laws, that are being used by people with vested interests to stifle and silence scientific discourse. The most notable use of these libel laws is the infamous and ongoing attempt by the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) to censor science writer Simon Singh, in a piece in the Guardian for the following passage:

The British Chiropractic Association claims that their members can help treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying, even though there is not a jot of evidence. This organisation is the respectable face of the chiropractic profession and yet it happily promotes bogus treatments.

EDM423 calls for a re-appraisal of the current UK libel laws to protect scientists, academics and journalists from lawsuits for simply engaging in scientific debate or discussion.

So I had asked my MP (Timpson) to sign this EDM. He declined on the grounds that EDM423 seeks to reverse the burden of proof in libel cases. I replied to him, questioning this, as It was my interpretation of the EDM that this was not the case (an interpretation shared by Simon Singh, who suggested I respond to the original letter I received from Timpson).

This is what I got in reply (abridged):

You are correct to note that the EDM does not explicitly seek to reverse the burden of proof in libel cases, but nor is it explicit in stating the balance that it wishes to strike. I am sure you will understand that it concerns me to put my name to such a sentiment.

Nevertheless we must continue to press that [sic] Government that any changeto libel law will protect both academics and journalists.

It would appear that Timpson, whilst apparently broadly supportive of the need for libel law reform, is unwilling to support a measure which does not explicitly define the changes to the burden of proof it might wish to impose.

D’oh. I tried.

Why tory MP Edward Timpson won’t Sign EDM 423

January 10, 2010

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:

Dear David,

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.

Yours sincerely

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.