A Defamation Bill – three years after the Penderels Oak meeting

So there is going to be a defamation bill.

It was in the Queen’s Speech, and the Ministry of Justice has published a bill with explanatory notes.

There has even been a first reading in the House of Commons, and there is a handy tracker page on Parliament’s website, so it must be true.

A defamation bill means that statutory reform of the law of libel is likely.  And such statutory intervention means reform more fundamental than can be done by the courts by themselves.

It my even be possible that the law of defamation can be re-cast for modern times.

(I have collected many of the relevant materials and links on the defamation bill on my resource page here, and I discuss the bill with Charon QC at the Without Prejudice podcast here.)

Success has many parents, but the publication of the bill – and current campaign for libel reform – surely has its origin in the defiance of Dr Simon Singh in respect of the illiberal and misconceived libel claim brought in 2008 by the (now discredited) British Chiropractic Association.

And that defiance in turn was aided and abetted by a worldwide network of bloggers and science geeks who got behind Simon from the very start of the claim.

But the key moment in Simon’s case perhaps occurred in April 2009.

The High Court had ruled that Simon would have to defend his contention that the BCA happily promoted bogus treatments for which there was not a jot of evidence by proving that the BCA were being deliberately dishonest.

This, of course, was almost impossible.  Not only was that  not what Simon had said (or intended to imply), it is extremely difficult to show dishonesty against any corporation (a ‘person’ which exists only at law).

After the High Court hearing, in a pub in Farringdon, I met up with Robert Dougans (Simon’s lawyer) and the estimable Padraig Reidy (news editor of Index on Censorship).  We were deflated, but we drank and we discussed what could be done next.

We realised that the case was not really any longer just about the nonsense claims of some alternative health practitioners; it was about the structural problems about English libel law.  This was now the real story, and something needed to be done.

And then I had a rare brainwave.

I decided to organise a public meeting in support of Simon.

But instead of it being only a meeting of science geeks and skeptics, it would try to bring in others with either an interest in libel reform or the ability to do something about it – I would try and get as many journalists, editors, and other influential individuals there as I could.  And I would use Twitter and Facebook to promote the meeting.

The meeting was to take place at the Penderels Oak on Holborn in London, the then usual venue for the London group of Skeptics in the Pub (though I was told by them it could not badged as a Skeptics event).

Simon actually did not think many would turn up.

However, the pub was packed.  The speakers included the comedian Dave Gorman, the journalist Nick Cohen, and Dr Evan Harris, then an MP.   Professor Brian Cox came along to introduce Simon.  It was chaired by Professor Chris French (as I then loathed public speaking).

The videos of each speaker at that event (which was almost exactly three years ago today) are here and each is well worth watching all this time later.

Simon did not decide to fight on and appeal the decision at the hearing – he was to decide that later on the basis of solid legal advice.

But it was clear to him that there was wide-ranging and substantial support for him.

As Nick Cohen later wrote:

I expected a glum affair and did not expect my contribution to raise morale. I described how the judiciary had allowed Robert Maxwell, Roman Polanski, Khalid bin Mahfouz and many another actual or suspected criminals to use a biased and prohibitively expensive law to silence their critics.

Far from being depressed, the audience turned into a heaving mass of furious geeks, who roared their anger and vowed that they would not rest until they had brought down the rotten system.

Simon did decide to fight on.  The loose campaign in support of him was taken over by the excellent Sense About Science , and they in turn allied with Index on Censorship and English Pen.  And thanks to them, libel reform was included in each major party’s manifesto at the 2010 General Election, and – more importantly – they ensured that the Ministry of Justice were engaged with the campaign and were aware of the need for change.

Without Sense About Science, Index on Censorship, and English Pen, there would not be a defamation bill.  (And particular credit must go for this to Dr Sile Lane and Mike Harris.)

But without the support which was clear to even a doubtful Simon three years ago at the Penderels Oak, there may not have been a campaign for those bodies to harness.

Sometime people sneer at mere ‘talking shops’ and ‘echo chambers’.

But sometimes such gatherings can make a real difference.

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