I don’t normally do this sort of mass-blog thing, but I’ll make an exception for this: today is the first anniversary of the report Free Speech is Not for Sale, which highlighted the oppressive nature of English libel law. In short, the law is extremely hostile to writers, while being unreasonably friendly towards powerful corporations and individuals who want to silence critics.
The cost of a libel case is staggering, even compared to fighting other sorts of court case and especially compared to libel cases in other countries. In fact, the cost can be 140 times that of a similar case in Europe. This wouldn’t be so bad, but (in part because the onus in an English libel case is on the defendant to prove what they say is true) a libel case brought against you is very difficult to win, and even if you do then you’re only likely to recover 70% of your costs. Simon Singh’s recent libel victory cost him personally £60,000, and prevented him from working for a full year. Most bloggers, who aren’t backed by publishers, simply can’t afford to win these cases, much less lose them, and can therefore be effectively silenced by the mere threat of a libel case — even when they’re obviously and demonstrably right. There is no right to free speech under these laws, and large organisations both know and exploit that fact.
This worries me as an English blogger, but the internet allows bloggers to reach a global audience, which gives the High Court in London a global reach. Anyone can be sued in London if their writing is available in England, and they routinely are — why bring a libel case anywhere but the most claimant-friendly court available? Had president Obama not signed the SPEECH Act into law, blocking oppressive foreign libel rulings from being enforced in the US, American newspapers would probably have blocked British readers from their websites rather than risk being sued here.
You can read more about the peculiar and grossly unfair nature of English libel law at the website of the Libel Reform Campaign. You will see that the campaign is not calling for the removal of libel law, but for a libel law that is fair and which would allow writers a reasonable opportunity to express their opinion and then defend it.
The good news is that the British Government has made a commitment to draft a bill that will reform libel, but it is essential that bloggers and their readers send a strong signal to politicians so that they follow through on this promise. You can do this by joining me and over 50,000 others who have signed the libel reform petition at http://www.libelreform.org/sign.
Remember, you can sign the petition whatever your nationality and wherever you live. Indeed, signatories from overseas remind British politicians that the English libel law is out of step with the rest of the free world.
The above is adapted from, and contains big, unedited chunks of, a template sent to bloggers a few days ago.