Sunday, December 13, 2009

Britain is being turned into a “global laughing stock” because of its draconian libel laws

This is from today's Sunday Times. I couldn't possibly comment.

Top comedians and wits, including Alexei Sayle, Ricky Gervais and Stephen Fry, say Britain is being turned into a “global laughing stock” because of its draconian libel laws. They are the latest critics to call for reform of the legislation which is stifling free speech.

Sayle says he endured a “horrible experience” after he was sued for libel. He eventually won the case, but said he risked financial ruin because of the high costs of defending himself in the London courts.

The comedian said yesterday the case racked up thousands of pounds in costs, which he never recovered even after successfully defending the action. “It would have been cheaper if I’d just stabbed the f*****,” he said. “The most I would have got was an Asbo barring me from certain parts of Croydon.”

Sayle said the libel writ was issued after he wrote a graphic novel called Geoffrey the Tube Train. Someone who worked with Sayle in the comedy business claimed one of the characters resembled him and his reputation had been sullied.

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“I was determined to fight the case,” said Sayle. “But everything you own hangs on a philosophical discussion about the meaning of words. I risked losing everything.

“The penalties of a libel case — both in terms of awards and legal costs — are completely distorted and out of proportion to any offence.”

Sayle and other comedians are supporting a campaign for an overhaul of the libel laws. They say the threat of a ruinous writ means comedians, as well as scientists and other individuals and bodies, are having to sanitise their output.

Robin Ince, a stand-up comedian and television panellist, said lawyers hired by TV channels were routinely censoring comic material because of libel fears. He said: “England is the envy of the world for anyone who wants to crush dissent.

“It means you now have this hideous mire of lawyers and there is a constant fear [of a possible action]. They err on the side of over-caution.”

The Sunday Times has highlighted how British libel laws are being used to threaten scientists publishing critical research and to prevent scrutiny of rich and powerful figures based overseas.

Last week Dara O’Briain, the presenter of BBC2’s satirical show Mock the Week, launched a Libel Reform Campaign petition. He said the libel laws were a “dangerous joke” being used to silence or censor writers. O’Briain said he was most concerned by the threat to scientific research and comment but had also feared for his own performances.

“I think in a couple of cases the people in question thought, ‘We will just look stupid if we take action’,” he said. “But this is essentially a poker game because even if you are right you will lose a six-figure sum. It’s ludicrous.”

Dave Gorman, the comedian and author, said: “The costs of a libel action silence people because you cannot afford to fight. We should have a legal system that gives redress to people whose reputations have been damaged, but this isn’t it.”

Other comedians supporting the campaign include Ricky Gervais and Stephen Fry, the presenter and wit, who said Britons should “cringe with embarrassment” at existing legislation that made the UK a “global laughing stock”. “Our laws can be manipulated to protect the corrupt and to hide the truth,” he said.

A public backlash against the libel laws began after the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) sued the science writer Simon Singh for describing chiropractic remedies for some childhood ailments, including asthma, as “bogus” since there was insufficient clinical evidence. He has appealed against a preliminary judgment against him but has already racked up legal costs of £100,000.

Mr Justice Eady, who presides over many libel cases, is a popular judge with many claimants. In a preliminary hearing in Singh’s case, he ruled the word “bogus” in an article meant the science writer was accusing the BCA of dishonesty, which Singh disputes and certainly never intended.

Eady has also allowed foreign claimants to pursue cases against overseas publications, bolstering London’s reputation as a centre for libel tourism. Lawmakers in several American states have passed laws to protect their citizens from UK courts.

Eady defended the libel courts at a legal conference earlier this month, saying there were very few cases involving foreign claimants. Campaigners point out that the mere threat of a London libel action by a rich individual or powerful corporation is often enough to quash criticism, so most cases are unlikely even to reach Eady’s court.

It has also emerged that respected American newspapers are considering pulling their London editions because of the risk of a costly libel action. An Oxford University report published last year found libel court costs were 140 times higher in Britain than in the rest of Europe.

The Libel Reform Campaign — backed by English PEN, the Index on Censorship, Sense about Science and Reporters without Borders — wants capped damages, strict controls on costs and a stronger defence of public interest.

The petition, launched last week, states: “Journalists, authors, academics, performers and blog-writers cannot risk extortionate costs, which means they are forced to back down.”

Jonathan Heawood, director of English PEN, which promotes literature and human rights, said: “There is growing public anger. It’s wrong that writers are being intimidated into silence.”

Laugh — if you dare

• What do you get when you cross a libel lawyer with a demon from hell?

Another libel lawyer.

• A man walked into a bar with an alligator and said: “Do you serve libel lawyers here?”

“Yes, indeed,” said the barman.

“Good,” said the man. “I’ll have a beer for myself and a libel lawyer for the alligator.”

• Two libel lawyers go hunting and one suddenly falls ill and drops to the ground.

The other pulls out his mobile and dials 999. He tells the operator: “My friend is dead. What shall I do?”

“First, let’s make sure he’s dead.”

There is a short pause and a shot is heard. The libel lawyer’s voice comes back on the line: “OK, what now?”

• My libel lawyer says he didn’t want to marry his wife for her money. But there was no other way to get it.


Anonymous said...

when will someone proint the truth about margaret thatchers arms deals when she was prime minister

Anonymous said...

Hope it went well today, John.

John Gray said...

It was good news comrade! Best result today possible!