Sunday, April 14, 2013

Why I shan't be writing to my MP on libel reform

Robert Sharp, the head of campaigns and communications for English PEN, has a good post on Liberal Democrat Voice about a new threat to the prospects for reform of the law of libel.

He says:
No sooner had the proposed law been liberated, after being taken hostage by Leveson negotiations, than Conservative MPs have begun messing with crucial free speech provisions.
One has tabled an amendment seeking to remove a crucial clause from the Defamation Bill that places limits on corporations’ use of the libel laws.

Robert explains:
Such a law would have discouraged the crippling libel cases brought by Big Pharma against Dr Peter Wilmshurst and Dr Ben Goldacre. It would have helped Simon Singh. It would stop the costly ‘lawfare’ waged by the extractive industries around the world against human rights groups like Global Witness. It would stop scientists and doctors from having to decide whether to speak out for their patients and risk selling their house in order to pay legal fees… Or keep their mouths shut. 
The clause is an entirely sensible provision that was recommended by the Culture, Media and Sport select committee, and the pre-legislative scrutiny committee, chaired by former Tory Party chairman Lord Mawhinney. 
Crucially, it is Liberal Democrat Party policy, and was in the 2010 manifesto that elected 57 Lib Dem MPs.
He goes on to urge Lib Dem activists to contact Nick Clegg and ask him to "stand up to the corporate libel bullies" and deliver a policy on which the general election campaign was fought. He also hopes they will contact their MPs, asking them to oppose Sir Edward’s attack on the Defamation Bill.

Robert is right. Libel reform is long overdue. More than that, granting rights to corporate bodies has always seemed to me the worse kind of Hegelian romantic nonsense - just the sort of thing good Anglo-Saxon jurists should be sceptical about.

And even if you do think it is a good idea, Robert assures us that the clause the Tory MP wants to remove does not bar corporations from suing entirely: it just asks that they show financial loss before they do so. He describes it as an objective and measurable test for companies, who "after all do not have feelings".

Sadly, there is little point in my writing to my MP on this matter. Why? Because Sir Edward Garnier QC MP, sometime leading libel barrister, member for Harborough and thus my MP, is the man behind the amendment which Robert so deplores.

1 comment:

Andy Boddington said...

I have this problem with Philip Dunne, my MP. He is a total slave to the party machine. He said as much during the gay marriage debate, writing in the local paper he confided could not express a public view until he knew there was to be a free vote. On most issues he just top and tails a standard government response.

We live in an age where MPs are merely cogs in their party machines and only care about people at election time.