Kamila Shamsie’s Speech at the Mass Rally for Libel Reform

Houses of Parliament

On Wednesday 27th June, the Libel Reform Campaign visited parliament to demand improvements to the Defamation Bill, which is currently in Committee in the House of Commons.  Campaigners from English PEN, Index on Censorship and Sense About Science were joined by comedians Dara O Briain and Dave Gorman, scientist and television presenter Brian Cox, the science writer Simon Singh and many other libel defendants.  Justice Minister Lord McNally was also present at the meeting, and heard the arguments of those demanding a better Public Interest defence for the Bill.

The author Kamila Shamsie, a PEN Trustee, gave a speech to the rally, highlighting the threat that libel poses to literature and publishing.  You can read the text below or you can click to listen to a recording.

‘Sixteen years ago, I wrote a novel called A Vicious Circle, and in consequence nearly lost my home, my reputation and a great deal of money.’ So begins an article in today’s Telegraph by the writer Amanda Craig who was accused of libel by an ex-boyfriend who claimed to be one of the characters in her novel, based on superficial similarities including the make of a particular pair of shoes. Her publishers dropped the book.  The novelist Jake Arnott was sued for libel, and his novel pulped, because he was unlucky enough to call a fictional musician in his novel ‘Tony Rocco’, unaware there was a real musician named Tony Rocco.  

It isn’t just science, but also culture, that is effected by the libel laws. Simply put, if writers are to police the overlapping area between imagination and memory for every pair of shoes a kind of paralysis sets in. That paralysis has a name – self-censorship. 

But the chilling effect of the libel laws go beyond self-censorship – publishers must spend huge amounts of money fighting legal cases; the money spent on lawyers means less money available for the actual books. This doesn’t mean less money for the big authors who publishers are desperate to hang on to – it’s the newer voices, the quieter voices, the experimental and already-marginalised voices, who find themselves shut out. In the case of smaller publishing houses  there is no money for legal cases; they can be wiped out by a single accusation, or else choose to take the most conservative possible approach to publishing, minimising all risk, to keep the shadow of libel from their door. The risk-minimising attitude of the publishing industry is a danger to freedom of expression. 

Kafka once spoke of fiction as an axe for the frozen sea inside us – without a proper public interest defence, and measures to dispense with trivial claims, the libel laws are in danger of freezing the axe itself. 

Our campaign colleagues Index on Censorship have published a comprehensive Storify summary of the event, ‘A Final Push For Libel Reform‘, where you can see the press coverage, tweets and images of the rally and the subsequent handing in of the petition to downing street. There is also a video, embedded below.

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