Death of free speech: Is Britain becoming the censorship capital of the world?
Quote:Britain has a historic and international reputation as the home of free speech.
Yet in recent times it has been developing an altogether contrary reputation as the country where free speech is being steadily suppressed, courtesy of the English legal system and in particular the law of libel.
The latest victim of this phenomenon is a Danish radiologist, Dr Henrik Thomsen. At a scientific congress in Oxford, he claimed that some kidney patients at his hospital had contracted a potentially deadly condition after taking the drug Omniscan.
As a result, he found himself being sued for libel by the makers of the drug, a subsidiary of General Electric called GE Healthcare.
The company has denied that it suppressed information about the drug and said it is safe for 99 per cent of patients.
This is merely the latest in a string of alarming cases in which the English libel law has been used to gag debate that is overwhelmingly in the public interest. Several of these cases involve scientific or medical issues.
Simon Singh, a science writer, is being sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association for describing some of its treatments as 'bogus'.
And Peter Wilmshurst, a consultant cardiologist, is being sued by a U.S. company, NMT Medical, after he questioned the effectiveness of a new heart implant device.
Far be it for me to suggest that any of these allegations is true. But after raising such matters, serious scientists are being hounded to retract their claims.
Yet science depends upon scientists making such critical observations. Trying to gag them surely amounts to an abuse of the libel law and threatens the very integrity of science itself.
The idea that libel can be used like this to stifle discussion of the possible dangers of medical treatments will strike many as utterly intolerable.
The reason it is happening is that, unlike equivalent laws in other countries against defamation, English libel law is the most draconian in the world.
It places the burden of proving that a statement is true on the person who has made it. This means in practice that from the start the cards are stacked against the defendant and in favour of those who are bringing the libel suit.
This is justified on the grounds that anyone who makes a possibly libellous statement is thought to be best placed to prove the truth of the information they claim to have.
But although they may have good reason to believe that something is true, it is often difficult to prove it - not least because to do so may involve gaining access to further information which only the person bringing the libel suit actually possesses.
So even if someone has what by any normal standards would be regarded as a justified case for making such a claim, this is not enough to prevent them from losing a libel case.
In other countries, by contrast, a malicious intent behind such claims has to be proved in order to win such a case. But in Britain, people are being sued successfully for making reasonable statements.
The law of libel has long been the bane of journalists' lives. But now it has become something altogether more sinister and frightening.
Rather than a form of legal redress for unjustly sullying someone's reputation, it is increasingly being used by wealthy individuals or organisations as a weapon to stifle politically or commercially unwelcome views.
Because of the difficulty of proving what may be unprovable, those who express such views are intimidated by the prospect of losing such a case - and then having to pay astronomical legal costs to multinationals or wealthy individuals who can afford to keep racking up the final bill.
So scientists, academics, authors, journalists and others are effectively censoring themselves for fear of becoming trapped in a ruinous libel suit - or are being forced to back down and apologise for statements they still believe to be true.
More sinister still, the courts are being used by Arabs and radical Muslims to shut down discussion of Islamic terrorism or extremism.
In what appears to be a co-ordinated campaign - aided and abetted by certain English law firms - writers who draw attention to suspected terrorism networks or extremist statements find themselves promptly served with a writ for libel.
The fact that the grounds for such lawsuits are often preposterous is all but irrelevant given the intimidatory effect of the apparently bottomless pockets behind them.
Such 'libel tourism' is proving a chilling weapon in the armoury of those who are waging Islamic holy war.
It is also turning Britain into an international pariah as the country whose courts are now the most hospitable in the world to attempts to stifle discussion of Islamic extremism.
In one infamous case, U.S. author Rachel Ehrenfeld was sued for libel in Britain over her book Funding Evil about the Islamic terrorist money trail.
Her book was not even published in the UK. But 23 copies sold over the internet which were shipped to Britain opened her up to a libel suit, in which she was ordered to pay £130,000 in costs and damages.
This case has led a number of U.S. states to pass a special law to prevent English libel judgments from being applied to books published in the U.S.
Britain has now become the global centre for this kind of legal censorship over a growing range of issues. The rich and powerful flock from all over the world to use its courts to stifle scrutiny of their affairs.
And, by definition, the public are unaware of such suppression since, because of the risk of libel, no one can tell them what it is they are not being allowed to know.
The result is that there are increasing occasions where rogues, malefactors and incompetents are getting away with extremism, negligence or other bad deeds without any public scrutiny at all.
Now a campaign backed by many eminent people has got under way to reform the libel law. MPs who have been slow to respond to this growing threat suddenly woke up recently when it reached Parliament itself.
The attempt by the law firm Carter-Ruck to prevent the Guardian newspaper from reporting a Labour MP's question about the alleged dumping of toxic waste by the oil trading company Trafigura, on the grounds that this would break an injunction against reporting such allegations, was seen as a direct challenge to the supremacy of the legislature.
The resulting outcry forced Carter-Ruck to back down, but the threat to Parliament has apparently not disappeared.
Anything MPs say in the chamber of the Commons has immunity from libel. But according to Index On Censorship, the Speaker's Office has now advised the House of Commons that, contrary to previous reassurances, MPs do not have the same legal protection for statements they make elsewhere in Parliament, such as in committees or other public meetings.
And meanwhile, in the past few days the BBC has apologised to Trafigura and paid £25,000 in libel damages for claims made on BBC2's Newsnight about waste dumping - in a case which some experts had estimated would rack up costs of around £3million if the BBC had fought it.
Of course, those whose reputations really are traduced must be able to obtain justice.
But such corporate or individual intimidation courtesy of the English libel law must be stopped if Britain is not to exchange its reputation as the crucible of free speech for that of the laughing stock of the world.
The revolution is not an apple that falls when it is ripe. You have to make it fall. - Che Guevara
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