Last night was a special edition of Westminster Skeptics, celebrating Simon Singh’s recent victory at the Court of Appeal over the meaning of the words he is being sued over (or as Dave Gorman put it “the 2nd Annual Simon Singh free-speech event”) and it was also a chance for us to hear what each of the three main parties had to say on the matter, which is of particular interest given the general election coming up and the manifestos being released this week. The Lib Dems were being represented by the veteran of Westminster Skeptics, Dr Evan Harris; the Conservatives by Joanne Cash, their PPC for Westminster North and Labour were Lord Bach, one of their Justice Ministers. This was followed by a panel discussion between Nick Cohen, Padraig Reidy, Sile Lane and Allen Green. As with every Skeptics in the Pub event, I was again pleasantly surprised at how engaging and educational standing in a pub and listening to what these renowned speakers had to say.
Dave Gorman opened proceedings with his fantastic line from above about this being the “2nd annual” event, to much applause from the crowd, before giving a both comedic and serious version of the story so far. To someone that doesn’t hang off of every word from Simon’s case (or in my case, have it distilled for me by Jack of Kent), we must be a strange bunch with a lot of skeptic/libel reform in-jokes, and it was nice to see that Dave Gorman is someone who is fully in that crowd as it could be so easy for someone famous to put their name to a campaign without having the intimate knowledge at his fingertips that Dave Gorman appears to have.
He observes that the BCA have more-or-less failed in their mission to promote chiropractic by inviting more criticism than they previously had, and by trying to measure up to science. (I might be slightly paraphrasing here, as my notes aren’t as good as I thought)
both practitioners and customers know that the evidence isn’t up the standards set by science…that is the reason for their custom…they like to be “outside of science”
Indeed, why try and square up to science if you are purporting to be alternative?
He continues this train of thought throughout the whole case, talking about the right of reply and apology in the Guardian:
to not take the right of reply was to spectacularly miss an open goal
They were basically given the opportunity to put their side across that they don’t need evidence and operate beyond science, and they missed it. He then discusses the oddity asking for an apology and trying to understand just what sort of apology would have sufficed. After all, the BCA are apparently most upset about the idea that they were dishonestly promoting treatments (something the article is now deemed not to imply by the Courts). He puts forward a short potential apology:
They honestly believe this stuff works, but it doesn’t and they are stupid.
Well, it seems to cover their bases…
The final quote of the evening from Dave Gorman was a serious one about libel chill, and really the one that we are all worried about:
[some articles] are retracted before they’ve even been published, and that is what really scares me.
(He sums this all up very neatly on his own blog too)
Simon only took to the stage briefly as some of the politicians were on a tight schedule, but he (as many of the speakers did), thanked the blogosphere, the twitterers and all the supporters for helping this campaign to reach critical mass in the time it has, and putting libel reform into the limelight:
every major political party is backing libel reform
and updating us on his outlook following the judgement earlier in the month:
the case has changed position…looking a lot rosier
Lord Bach – Labour
Lord Bach (and Labour party) was much more committed to libel reform than I had initially expected and had some very powerful quotes to give to the room on where labour stood on the matter.
[we have] the full backing of the Government party
“new legislation on libel” in the manifesto
Labour are fully behind the movement, no matter what the election outcome
this is a firm commitment
Very strong words indeed, although as Evan Harris later pointed out, their manifesto still refers to “defendants” in libel cases; somewhat presumptuous.
Joanne Cash – Conservative
I was eager to see Joanne Cash for myself for two reason: as a Tory voter myself I really wanted to hear the party’s commitment to reform and she has been talked about at length in the media/blogosphere so I wanted to see for myself. I have to say that after the hype I was somewhat disappointed, but I suppose if someone has been built up in your mind, that is almost inevitable. As a libel barrister, I thought she would have more to say on the issue, but instead she kept it quite short and sweet and outlined their position as follows:
- a commitment to change the cost regime
- Dominic Greive plans to widen the comment defence
- Commitment to new legislation if required
Dr Evan Harris – Liberal Democrats
As Allen Green said:
no meeting of Westminster Skeptics would be complete without a talk from Dr Evan Harris
and so it happened. Evan is really on home turf here and as a result he came across the best, especially when talking about the wider issues of libel chill and its existence throughout writing. He knows that the devil is in the details too, saying all the parties (even his own) might shy away from legislation if they haven’t promised us details. Consequently, here are his details:
The Lib Dems are committed to a statutory public interest defence
automatically qualified privilege for peer-reviewed journals
no reason that companies should be able to sue for libel…and a number of other things
I’m particularly interested in qualified privilege for peer-reviewed journals: seems to me like a brilliant idea, as long as there is adequate peer-review to stop nonsense becoming “qualified nonsense”!
Panel Discussion and Questions
The panel discussion was a somewhat rushed affair, and I think everyone (including me) was dying for a break at this point, but still a few good points were made by each speaker. Nick Cohen spoke at length about Conditional Fee Agreements and the recent defeat of a move to abolish them, lead by Tom Watson, but probably his most rousing quote was that we need libel refrom to
protect the freedom the internet has given
Allen Green then re-iterated that while Simon’s case and the recent judgement is important, it is not the end of the campaign and is relatively insignificant for most.
some writers will be more protected now, in some disciplines, but still no public interest defence and no end to libel tourism
And finally Padraig Reidy told the story of how Sheikh Khalid bin Mahfouz, who sued Cambridge University Press regarding a book he claimed accused him of funding terrorism. CUP promptly apologised, pulped the books and donated a sum of money to Unicef on his behalf, despite the authors maintaining they had done nothing wrong.
Cambridge University Press folded at the first hurdle
I think this very neatly sums up the libel chill in this country.
So now, more than ever, we need to be watching our PPCs and their pledges as we go into this general election and make sure we have all signed the petition: lets get to 100,000 before Parliament starts again. The election gives us a chance to make a difference and change the law.