Lib Dems challenge British libel law

By Ian Dunt

The Liberal Democrats are gearing up to launch an anti-libel agenda at the next general election, with an amendment to a policy motion on civil liberties being proposed to conference today by Richard Dawkins.

The party allowed Professor Dawkins to address the conference, despite not being a party member, which formed an amendment to a policy motion on civil liberties.

“I feel honoured to be a guest here today, despite not being a member of your party, although I have voted Liberal Democrat in every election since the party was founded,” he told delegates.

The infamous atheist and scientific expert was prompted to campaign on the issue after the case against Simon Singh, an author being sued by the British Chiropractic Association for an article questioning the use of chiropractic techniques in childhood illness.

Comment: The law that shames Britain

The author has already spent £100,000 defending the action.

Speaking to after the vote, Prof Dawkins described Mr Singh’s fight as “heroic”.

“The case against Simon Singh is shameful,” he added.

Mr Singh said Britain’s libel laws were “utterly embarrassing”.

The case is just the latest in a series of actions against scientists, including a writ against Peter Wilmshurst, heart specialist at Royal Shrewsbury Hospital, by American firm NMT Medical, for suggesting medical trials into one of its devices had been described inaccurately.

Dr Evan Harris, who pushed the amendment, told the party wanted to alter the burden of proof in libel cases so that it rested on the claimant, not the defendant. The law currently forces the writer to prove he did not defame the claimant, rather than the other way round, as is the case in most civil and criminal cases.

The party also wishes to restrict libels to genuinely British publications. Under current law, a libel can be issued in Britain if someone viewed an article on a website from the UK, regardless of where the website is based.

In Mr Wilmshurst’s case, for instance, his remarks were published on an American website, but Britain is a more attractive country to issue the writ because of its draconian libel laws.

Political analysts are still unsure of how the level of support the fight against libel has in Conservative circles, although Dr Harris said “there are some Conservatives that are interested”.

The amendment to the civil liberties policy motion read: “The protection of freedom of expression, by reforming the libel laws in England and Wales to ensure a better balance is provided between free speech, responsible journalism, scientific discourse and the public interest on one hand and powerful corporations, wealthy individuals and vested interests on the other.”

Delegates to the conference also passed amendments calling for a ban on ‘Mosquito alarms’ which play an unpleasant noise only audible to teenagers, designed to stop them congregating in certain areas.

Despite pleas from home affairs spokesman Chris Huhne to retain a clause expressly allowing the DNA of people acquitted of serious and sexual crimes to be retained for three years, delegates voted to scrap any retention of DNA for anyone found innocent of any offence.