Thursday, March 25, 2010


(my other job is legal-affairs correspondent)

Libel-law reform
Fairer but still costly
Reform of England’s tough libel law is moving up the agenda

Mar 25th 2010 | From The Economist print edition

WHETHER or not lie detectors work sounds like a good subject for open and honest discussion. Unless English libel courts get in the way, that is. Francisco Lacerda, a Swedish professor of phonetics, believes that the science of analysing voices for signs of stress—and therefore deceit—is flawed. He published an article called “Charlatanry in Forensic Speech Science” in an academic journal. The publisher was then threatened with a libel action by an Israeli company that made devices that Mr Lacerda criticised.

The case (which has not come to court) is the latest to be cited by a coalition demanding changes in English libel law. Others include

that of a British cardiologist, Peter Wilmshurst, who criticised the safety of an American-made medical device at an American conference—but is being sued, personally, in England. The law, critics say, unfairly protects reputation at the cost of the public interest. That hurts journalists, and scientists and anti-corruption campaigners. They also worry about “libel tourism”: foreigners fighting cases in English courts that would be unsuccessful elsewhere.

On March 24th the justice secretary, Jack Straw, said Labour would introduce a bill reforming libel law after the election. It would create a statutory “public interest” defence and restrict libel tourism. Campaigners welcomed the promise, which is a defeat for some senior judges who have argued that nothing much is amiss. The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats also support reform.

A report issued on March 23rd, by a working group at the justice ministry, calls for changes too. But it also explains how hard it will be make them work. It is not true that the law in England currently allows no defence based on responsible journalism in the public interest. Thanks to some landmark judgments in recent years, that already (to some extent) exists. And courts have shown themselves willing to rule against claims by foreigners when no significant publication took place in England.

But winning such victories may be prohibitively costly. England’s adversarial system of justice expects both sides to be represented; it does not encourage judges to be inquisitorial, as in continental Europe. Cutting costs would reduce the problem for small, poor news organisations that are being sued by tycoons (a notable example involves a Ukrainian website). But for scientists who are just trying to do their job a robust public-interest defence matters even more.

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