'Libel law has the potential to kill". That was the stark warning issued by Professor of Complementary Medicine Edzard Ernst at the launch of a new campaign seeking reform of Britain's libel laws.
The Libel Reform Campaign, which launched its petition calling for reform of the libel laws in London yesterday, brings together English Pen, Index on Censorship, Sense about Science and a broad group of comedians, journalists, politicians and public figures.
It follows the case of author and journalist Simon Singh who is currently appealing against the British Chropractic Association's successful libel suit against him over a comment piece he wrote in The Guardian.
Professor Ernst said: "If Simon hadn't exposed in his Guardian article that chiropractors in this country, and in other countries, believe and advertise that chiropractic techniques can treat asthma effectively, if he hadn't exposed that children would be treated like that...
"Asthma, particularly in children, is potentially a lethal disease – so silencing people like Simon has the potential to caused deaths. I think it's an awful law."
Singh himself told the meeting :"18 months ago I was sued for libel and next February we are back at the Court of Appealâ€¦
"I've run up bills of £100,000, they've run up bills of £100,000, it shouldn't cost this much time and energy and stress and distraction to settle these kinds of matters."
He cited the case of cardiologist Peter Wilmshurst who is being sued by US company NMT Medical because he criticised their research into a device used in heart surgery.
Singh said: "An English scientist gives an interview in America to a Canadian journalist and an American online magazine about an American company and ends up getting sued in London. If he loses he will be bankrupt, he will lose everything."
Singh revealed that even though The Guardian won a recent libel action involving Ben Goldacre, in which he criticised a vitamin company which made claims about its pills and the treatment of Aids, the paper was still left with £175,000 in unrecovered costs.
He said: "Winning means losing a year or two of your life and losing £175,000 which is why people just back off and settle."
The latest campaign follows the publication of a report by Pen and Index which called for wide-ranging reforms of libel laws including: shifting the burden of proof from defendant to claimants, capping damages at £10,000 and reducing the prohibitive cost of defending libel actions by tackling the issue of success fees for claimant lawyers.
In recent weeks justice secretary Jack Straw has launched a working group to consider the findings of the Pen and Index report. He has also promised to carry out wide-ranging reform of the libel laws in recent press interviews.
The Ministry of Justice is also in the midst of a consultation on updating libel laws for the internet age, which is due to end on 16 December. And the Commons media select committee report on Press Standards, Privacy and Libel is expected to be released before Christmas.
Liberal Democrat MP Evan Harris told yesterday's meeting: "There are reasons to be encouraged that we are pushing against a door that is capable of being opened. There is a moment about free speech in this country."
High profile backers of the campaign include comedians Dara O Briain, Alexei Sayle and Dave Gorman who all signed the petition at yesterday's launch.
Philospher and broadcaster AC Grayling, who was also at yesterday's event, said: "Private agencies, big corporations and wealthy individuals can buy the silence of other people, can buy their punishment and break them and make them bankrupt. This is a profound injustice.
"It's not just that we can't speak our minds, we've put into the hands of people who have got the money an instrument to bash other people with."
Another supporter, Observer journalist Nick Cohen, warned that the economic problems facing news organisations make libel reform particularly urgent.
He said: "Across the developed world the money is flowing out of journalism. The internet is destroying the business model of journalism. News organisations in Britain with the exception of the BBC, simply are not going to have the money to fight libel actions, even if they think they are right.
"The risks, the fact you've got a biased law, the fact you are up against certain judges who I think shouldn't have a place in liberal society means that newspapers back off. They back off all the time.
"We are not just doing this to our own newspapers, we are quite shamefully doing it to the rest of the world. What does it say about Britain's reputation, Britain's moral standing in the world, that journalists in the UK trying to investigate corruptionâ€¦suddenly wake up and find they are being hauled before the courts in Britain."
COMMENT: SIGN THE PETITION NOW
Press Gazette has been highlighting the inequities of the no win, no fee system in libel cases for two years - with our Fair Play on CFA Campaign.
We wholeheartedly support this new campaign, have added our backing to the petition and urge our readers to do the same.
Our Media Law Conference last year heard that the cost of defending a libel action at trial could now easily run to £2.4m. In the current economic climate - no news organisation can afford to take that risk. So case after case is being settled, and many journalists are forced to shy away from controversial investigations because the financial risks are so huge.
Even in cases where news organisations are in the right, and win, they often have no chance of recovering their costs from claimaints who sue under no win, no fee deals.
This problem has been rumbling on for more than five years - but in the current economic climate has become more urgent than ever. The libel playing field has to levelled.
Here is the Libel Reform Campaign petition in full:
Freedom to criticise and question, in strong terms and without malice, is the cornerstone of argument and debate, whether in scholarly journals, on websites, in newspapers or elsewhere. Our current libel laws inhibit debate and stifle free expression. They discourage writers from tackling important subjects and thereby deny us the right to read about them.
The law is so biased towards claimants and so hostile to writers that London has become known as the libel capital of the world. The rich and powerful bring cases to London on the flimsiest grounds (libel tourism), because they know that 90% of cases are won by claimants. Libel laws intended to protect individual reputation are being exploited to suppress fair comment and criticism.
The cost of a libel trial is often in excess of £1 million and 140 times more expensive than libel cases in mainland Europe; publishers (and individual journalists, authors, academics, performers and blog-writers) cannot risk such extortionate costs, which means that they are forced to back down, withdraw and apologise for material they believe is true, fair and important to the public.
The English PEN/Index on Censorship report has shown that there is an urgent need to amend the law to provide a stronger, wider and more accessible public interest defence. Sense About Science has shown that the threat of libel action leads to self-censorship in scientific and medical writing.
We the undersigned, in England and beyond, urge politicians to support a bill for major reforms of the English libel laws now, in the interests of fairness, the public interest and free speech.
Click here to sign: The Libel Reform Campaign website