Lib Dem peer to launch libel reform bill

Lord Lester of Herne Hill cites Simon Singh case in legislative quest for ‘fairer balance between private reputation and public information’. Paul Jump reports

A Liberal Democrat peer is to launch a libel reform bill in the House of Lords that would offer greater protection for scientific debate against defamation claims.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill said he was introducing the private member’s bill in order to encourage the government to act quickly on libel reform. He said his aim was to trigger the formation of a committee to take detailed evidence on the topic. He added that he hoped the government would adopt the final version of the bill.

Both the Conservatives and the Lib Dems made pre-election pledges to reform libel law in the wake of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee’s Press standards, privacy and libel report, which highlighted the current law’s potential to stifle scientific debate.

Writing in The Times newspaper, Lord Lester said the recent case of science writer Simon Singh highlighted the need for libel reform.

Dr Singh waged a two-year legal battle to establish his right to use the “fair comment” defence after he was sued by the British Chiropractic Association for claiming in a newspaper article that it “happily promotes” certain “bogus” chiropractic treatments.

The BCA finally dropped the lawsuit last month.

Lord Lester said that his bill, to be published on Thursday, would set out “stronger and clearer defences” and strike “a fairer balance between private reputation and public information”.

“We need a simpler statutory public interest defence, which clearly applies to everyone and covers opinion as well as fact,” he added.

The bill will also require libel claimants to prove real harm and corporate claimants to prove real damage. It will make clear that the same defences apply to bloggers and other online commentators as they do to professional journalists. It will clarify and simplify the “fair comment” defence, re-labelling it “honest opinion”.

Evan Harris, the Liberal Democrat former MP who headed an all-party coalition on libel reform, welcomed the move.

He said: “Libel law reform is needed to prevent the chilling of comment that is in the public interest. It is therefore essential for scientists and academics giving their opinion in good faith, and their publishers, to know at the time of publication that they will have an effective defence against a malicious libel plaintiff.”

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