“Changing the law” is the only answer to libel in science journalism

How should journalists deal with libel law? “Change the laws”, was the resounding answer from most of the panellists at last night’s Science Fact: Science Journalism and Libel Law public debate hosted by City University.

The debate, held to celebrate the launch of the university’s Science Journalism MA course, brought together a panel comprising science journalists, campaigners, and even a lawyer (brave fella). Among the panellists was science writer Simon Singh, who is currently being sued for libel, Bad Science columnist Ben Goldacre, and Sense About Science’s Tracey Brown.

The debate comes at a particularly apposite time in a week where libel has been hitting the headlines. On Tuesday, law firm Carter-Ruck had to back down on its super injunction on behalf of Trafigura after gagging The Guardian and others and impinging on parliamentary privilege. Also this week, Singh successfully won his bid to appeal against a libel ruling made against him.

However, he is currently facing costs in excess of £100,000 and yet another battle against the British Chiropractic Association.

“With libel, it’s not so much the damages as the costs involved,” said Singh. “And the problem with libel in England is that it is expensive and that the laws are unfair.”

Despite this, Singh is hopeful about the state of libel in the UK. “I honestly believe in the next 10 to 12 months there’s a real opportunity to change the libel laws,” he said.

Goldacre, who with the Guardian successfully fought a libel case earlier this year (but which still left the newspaper around £200,000 out of pocket), said the threat of libel is particularly bad for medical reporting.

“Medicine is almost unique in that it’s possible to do a great deal of harm while meaning to do good,” said Goldacre. “It is possible with medicine, even with the best of intentions, to kill. That is why the practise of criticising is so important in medicine. When that process is stifled, you put the public at great risk. You are exposing people to bad quality information.

“Every time someone criticises your practises, they are doing you a favour. But to create a culture where no one is able to speak is murderous.”

And this kind of environment is becoming more pervasive, said Brown, adding: “What Simon’s case has shed light on is the atmosphere of fear.”

But Brown fears editors will use Simon’s case as another cautionary tale and be even more reluctant to publish. What’s more, journals are now also living under the shadow of libel.

“Do we want to live in a world of euphemism?,” she asked. “All this lawyering is sanitising discussion. This is pushing us into a world where you no longer say what you mean.”

The fact that American states now feel the need to indemnify themselves against UK judges just highlights how bad our libel laws are, said fellow panellist John Kampfner, Chief Executive of Index on Censorship.

Commenting on the Carter-Ruck injunction, Kampfner said: “This has been an astonishing week for libel in the UK. But the danger is that once that fear has been seen off, politicians and others will forget about it. Almost more chilling is the misuse of article 8. Corporations are now using the Human Rights Act for any form of inquiry. There are several high profile cases happening right now and no one is allowed to report on them.

“Unless we change the body of law, we are facing down the end of a barrel.”

However, libel lawyer Duncan Lamont said: “Compared to continental law, we have a wonderful tradition of ‘publish and be damned.’

“Libel is evolving, maybe not as quickly as I would like. But one should never forget that if a journalist gets it wrong it can have disastrous consequence.”

The audience were then invited to put questions to the panel, with one asking what practical advice they would give to working journalists to avoid being exposed to the dangers of libel law.

Brown’s advice was clear: “The only advice I can give is to change the law.”

Kampfner agreed, saying, “They are seriously shocking libel laws, because they are restricting our freedom of expression. I’m not advocating removing our libel laws. You can have some horrible lies said about you, and you are entitled to a defence. You do need strong, robust libel laws. But you need good libel laws.

“Nothing beats getting the facts right. The better your facts, the better your investigation, the more you should be unleashed.”

Singh said journalists ran the risk of making the story bland. “In my case, if I had not mentioned the BCA, I probably would have been ok. But I thought they had a case to answer for. We’ve now got to a point where journalists just have to take out and take out in order to protect themselves.”

Another audience member asked the panel whether or not a newspaper should, if facing a crippling libel suit, let themselves go to the wall in order to prove a point and raise awareness about libel.

“Why don’t newspaper fall on their swords, well, that would mean hundreds of jobs,” answered Goldacre. “And it’s not the newspaper who should be making that sacrifice. It’s not the newspapers who should carry the can.

“I could just as easily say, ‘why don’t you sacrifice your job, your house’. But what you really need to do is campaign for a change in the law. The stifling effect doesn’t just hit journalists and newspapers, but it affects everyone’s access to information.”
© Melanie Hall 2017