New bill will protect scientists and journalists from vexatious suits when highlighting concerns with scientific evidence

A major reform of England and Wales’ defamation law - aimed in part at protecting scientists and journalists who voice legitimate concerns about the validity of scientific evidence from the threat of libel action - was unveiled in a new government bill on Friday.

In future, anyone claiming to have been libelled will have to show they have suffered serious harm to their reputation before they can take a case to court. This is intended to prevent companies cowing whistleblowers who express disquiet about the safety of drugs, medical devices or other products, into silence, and to prevent trivial or vexatious claims. The bill will also extend this privilege to peer-reviewed journals, in a move designed to make it more difficult to use the threat of a libel action to prevent an article being published as part of genuine scientific discourse.

Sense about libel

The publication of the bill follows a three-year campaign to ‘Keep Libel Laws out of Science’ run by the pressure group Sense About Science as part of a wider movement pressing for reform of libel laws. Alongside offering greater protection to scientific debate, the bill deals with a number of other issues that campaigners claim are circumscribing freedom of speech as a whole.

The draft was published in March, so there are few surprises in the contents of the actual bill. However, campaigners were on tenterhooks as they waited to see if it would make the cut and become part of the coalition government’s next legislative programme, announced in the Queen’s speech on 10 May. 

One of the leading campaigners for reform, Simon Singh - whose own fight against a libel claim by the British Chiropractic Association became a cause célèbre - says the bill is ‘a great thing’. However, there are some ‘significant and important gaps’, he tells Chemistry World.

Most significantly, although companies will need to prove damage before bringing a libel action they will still be able to do so. ‘That’s not appropriate; libel is for individuals - it’s about protecting the reputation of a human being not a corporation,’ Singh says, noting companies have other means of defending their reputations, including public relations and the alternative legal option of claiming malicious falsehood. ‘I’m disappointed [companies] have not been excluded and there’s no explanation of why that’s the case,’ he adds. In one recent case, UK cardiologist Peter Wilmshurst was sued by a US medical devices company for criticising its research. 

Public interest

The bill will meet one important demand of campaigners in giving statutory legal recognition to the defence of public interest, but Singh says the level of protection ‘still seems weak’. Rather than having a series of hurdles to clear in order to prove there is a public interest, there should be a ‘basket of conditions’ that are assessed, he suggests.

Stephen Curry, professor of structural biology at Imperial College London, UK, agrees, saying the public interest defence, ‘is not stated as strongly as I would have wanted’. However, he is pleased that the bill matches up to many of the demands of campaigners and says that, in particular, the move to provide privilege to peer review journals is important. Curry also says there will be more freedom for researchers to express their views on blogs or elsewhere on the internet. 

However, he does not believe the new law will impinge on the day-to-day activities of most scientists. As he noted, the libel claims that inspired the campaign for reform involved the commercial interests of pharmaceutical and medical devices companies, or companies using pseudo-scientific data to promote dubious products. ‘You don’t see these sorts of cases in the scientific community: I’ve witnessed stand-up rows in conferences, but you are allowed to have that as part of open scientific debate,’ Curry says.

Tracey Brown, managing director of Sense About Science, believes the libel law as it stands has ‘bullying and chilling’ effects on discussions about health, scientific research and consumer safety. The reforms proposed in the new bill open the way to developing a law guided by ‘public interest not powerful interests’, Brown said.

Now the bill has been published it is imperative to keep up the hard work and ensure it ‘is fit for purpose and meets the needs of all parties’, said Ashley Grossman, president of the Society of Endocrinology. ‘It is essential clinicians and researchers are able to openly discuss and debate new scientific findings and new clinical research without fear of prosecution,’ he said.

Singh says campaigners must now take the argument a bit further. ‘We need to get the libel law fairly balanced,’ he says. ‘We don’t want to stop people with a legitimate case being able to sue for libel, but we want to protect the rights of authors and scientists as well.’

Nuala Moran