A judge's dismissal of a libel claim brought against world-leading scientific journal Nature by an Egyptian scientist is an important victory for free speech, the publication's lawyer said today.
But libel reform campaigners said the case, which lasted three years, involved a trial which took up more than four weeks, and cost huge amounts of money, highlighted the need for a public interest defence to be put into the defamation Bill currently making its way through Parliament.
According to the original High Court writ, El Naschie complained that Nature alleged in a story that he used his editorial privilege to self-publish numerous papers he'd written, which would not have been published elsewhere as they were of poor quality and had received no peer review.
In her judgment, today Mrs Justice Sharp, who heard the case in November and December last year, rejected Professor Mohamed El Naschie's claim that an article which appeared in Nature in November 2008 was defamatory, and accepted the defendants' defences of justification, honest comment and Reynolds privilege for responsible journalism on a matter of public interest.
Solicitor Niri Shan, head of media law at international law firm Taylor Wessing, who represented Nature, its publisher, Macmillan, and journalist Quirin Schiermeier, said: "The judgment is an important victory for free speech, and is a shot in the arm for the public interest defence of qualified privilege.
"Having said that, the fact that the claimant was able to bring this matter to trial highlights the urgent need for libel reform in the area of science reporting, as the law, as it currently stands, is stifling scientific debate.
"Moreover, even the current reforms being considered by Parliament do not go far enough."
Quirin Schiermeier, the senior reporter at Nature who was also a defendant, said: "This long-awaited judgment takes a huge load off my mind. It is powerful confirmation of the high journalistic standards we apply at Nature. It is also reminder of the value of freedom of speech in civil society."
Nature chief magazine editor Tim Appenzeller said: "This judgment is a great vindication for Nature's journalism and for our reporter, Quirin Schiermeier. It leaves no doubt about the care with which the story was reported and edited, and about the importance of this kind of coverage."
Nature's editor-in-chief, Dr Philip Campbell, said: "Nature has vigorously defended this article for over three years and we are all delighted that the court has found our journalism to be honest, justified and in the public interest."
But Tracey Brown, of Sense About Science, which is part of the Libel Reform Campaign, said: "The Defamation Bill published by the Government would not have made a difference to this case.
"A battle to defend your words that takes three years and a huge financial cost is out of the reach of most people.
"While the libel laws are complicated the issues aren't: do we want a society where people don't speak out, or one where free and open discussion is possible? The Government needs to bite the bullet and draft a new public interest defence to achieve the better and workable protection for free speech that has been promised."
Sile Lane, also of Sense About Science, said: "I am glad that Nature has won. But what a shame that it took them three years, and at what must have been ferocious cost, to defend their words.
"The Government's Defamation Bill would not have made a difference in this case if it had been in force, although the Nature story was clearly in the public interest," she said.
The lack of a public interest defence also meant that a defendant might find it difficult or impossible to defend a libel case about something such as a consumer review of products, for which the Reynolds defence would not be available, she said, adding: "The Government needs to understand that we need a proper public interest defence in the Bill."
Kirsty Hughes, of Index on Censorship, which is also part of the libel reform campaign, said: "There are two big issues the Bill must change:
we need a proper public interest defence, without which open scientific and political debate risks remaining seriously constrained.
"There's also huge public support for a bar on corporations suing individuals for libel. Yet, the government has ignored repeated calls from two parliamentary committees for a higher hurdle before corporations can sue. There's still time to get this right and protect ordinary citizens from corporations some of whom see libel claims as part of their marketing budget to defend their brands."
Simon Singh, who fought a bitter libel case with the British Chiropractic Association, said: "My case and similar libel actions against those writing about medicine helped spark the campaign for libel reform, but the proposed Defamation Bill still fails to offer protection to anyone who wants to write about medicine or science in the press or in a blog.
"There is no public interest defence and no restriction on the ability of corporations to bully critics into silence. The Government needs to address these issues or the result will be a semi-impotent Bill."