Another attempt to wreck UK libel law reform

Weeks after a Labour peer almost wrecked the Defamation Bill currently going through Parliament by getting passed in the House of Lords an amendment that would establish a Leveson-style press regulator, prompting a government threat to drop the bill entirely, Tory parliamentarian and barrister Edward Garnier is looking to remove part of the legislation that would limit the ability of commercial concerns to use libel law to intimidate critical experts and journalistic investigators into silence.

I have today written to my MP, Heidi Alexander, calling on her to oppose the Garnier amendment, and help build a wide parliamentary opposition to his nefarious plan.

As a science and engineering journalist this matter is of particular concern to me, as legal threats have on numerous occasions been made against those commenting on the claims made by drug manufacturers and a number of other powerful commercial interests.

As it happens I was once threatened by a commercially sponsored materials scientist who took objection to my questioning of data presented in one of her research group’s over-hyped journal papers. The published study came to my attention through a targeted press release that I was expected to rehash in churnalistic form, with no critical appraisal.

My response to the threat was to I tell this scientist and her colleagues to get stuffed. Had they not heeded my counsel and instead taken legal action against me, a freelance journalist with no limitation of liability, I would have been left without the proverbial paddle.

I have asked my MP to vote against the Garnier amendment when the Defamation Bill is debated in Parliament on Tuesday 16 April. It is imperative that libel law be reformed without hijacking by those who have no hope of furthering their agendas without political subterfuge.

There is talk of the Conservative Party backing the Garnier amendment, with senior Liberal Democrats falling into governing coalition line as part of a political compromise. How credible these rumours are I do not know, but if there is any truth to them, parliamentary supporters of libel law reform should set about building a cross-party coalition against the wreckers.

I have urged Heidi Alexander to speak with Liberal Democrat colleagues, and call on them to stand by their party policy on libel law reform. And if there are any wobbly Tory MPs of her acquaintance, they should be leaned on too.