The coalition Government intends to introduce a Bill to reform the libel laws during the current session of Parliament, MPs have been told.
The statement was made last week by Sir George Young, Leader of the House of Commons, as he answered a question from St Ives Liberal Democrat MP Andrew George, who had raised the issue of a libel action threatened against consultant plastic surgeon Dalia Nield.
George told the House: “Mrs Dalia Nield, an experienced and respected surgeon, has apparently been threatened by Rodial Ltd with a libel suit because she told a daily newspaper that Rodial’s £125 ‘boob job in a bottle’ cream was ‘highly unlikely’ to work, ‘potentially dangerous’ and might even harm the skin and the breast.
“Will the Leader of the House commit to libel reform in this Session?
“The problems of libel threats against scientists and doctors, such as Mrs Nield, Simon Singh and Dr Peter Wilmshurst have the effect of suppressing the advice of experts and doctors.”
Young said George had raised “a really serious issue” and added: “The coalition Government intend to introduce a defamation Bill during this Session.”
The coalition Government committed itself to reforming libel laws soon after it came into power, when a Defamation Bill was introduced into the House of Lords by Lord Lester of Herne Hill QC.
It announced on July 9, during the second reading of Lord Lester’s Defamation Bill, that it would reform the libel laws to provide a “fair balance” between freedom of expression and protection of reputation.
Justice Minister Lord McNally said then that there would be a wide-ranging consultation exercise over the summer with publication of a draft Bill early in the New Year.
This was not a “vague promise” but a “firm commitment to act on this matter”, he told peers at the end of the debate.
Later in July the Ministry of Justice published a Structural Reform Plan under which developing options for reform was expected to take from this summer until March next year.
The plan gives as a milestone the publication next March of a “draft Defamation Bill for the reform of libel laws published for pre-legislative scrutiny”.
But it gave no indication of a timetable for the introduction or passage of the legislation.
Campaigners have been calling for reform because, they say, the current laws allow commercial concerns to stifle scientific debate, and little weight to the public interest in freedom of speech.
The threatened libel case against Dr Nield is the latest of a series involving medical specialists and scientists.
Dr Singh was sued by the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) for criticising the lack of evidence for chiropractic in the treatment of some infant disorders in an article in The Guardian. The BCA dropped the case after the Court of Appeal held that Dr Singh’s article amounted to fair comment.
Consultant cardiologist Dr Peter Wilmshurst is being sued by US-based NMT Medical for speaking about data from a clinical trial of a medical device, and was recently threatened with a second action by the same firm over comments he made on the BBC almost a year ago.
Scientist and writer Dr Ben Goldacre was sued by a vitamin manufacturer for questioning claims to treat HIV/AIDS with vitamins. The claimant eventually dropped the case.
Dr Singh said of the threat of action against Nield: “This is yet another libel threat that demonstrates that the Government needs to act urgently and radically to reform our libel law, which clearly silences critics on matters of public interest.
“In the last month, I have come across six new libel threats, which in turn means that the public only hears half the story.”
Campaigners also say that one effect of the current law is that many research papers or studies are not published because of the risk of an expensive libel action from a commercial company which believes its interests are threatened.