An open letter to the Prime Minister, the Rt Hon David Cameron MP; the Deputy Prime Minister, the Rt Hon Nick Clegg MP; the Leader of the Opposition, the Rt Hon Ed Miliband MP
We are writing to urge you to fulfil your commitment to libel reform and ensure that the Defamation Bill is passed.
All three parties made a pledge in their manifestos and this was restated in the Government’s coalition agreement.
We are deeply concerned that the bill is currently under threat, following the insertion of a new clause, late in the legislative process, which introduced aspects of Lord Justice Leveson’s recommendations. The Defamation Bill is not a suitable vehicle for the wider proposals of press regulation – as Lord Justice Leveson himself noted, libel did not form part of his terms of reference. It is therefore entirely inappropriate, and even reckless, for libel reform to be sacrificed to the current political stalemate. The bill offers an opportunity for reform that we cannot afford to miss.
This is a citizens’ bill that has the support of scientists, consumer groups, lawyers, doctors, journalists, writers and bloggers – more than 60,000 individuals have signed the Libel Reform Campaign’s petition for reform. This rare consensus across society springs from the knowledge that the libel laws of England and Wales may chill the speech of anyone who has the courage to speak out in the public interest.
Since the campaign for libel reform began three years ago, you will be aware of the many cases of scientists who have faced ruinous libel suits simply for blowing the whistle on dangerous medical practices, of writers whose investigations in the public interest cannot be published in the UK for fear of an action and consumer forums who face threatening letters from claimant lawyers for exposing poor practice. If the law is not reformed, bullies will continue to be able to prevent the publication of stories that are often not only in the public interest, but a matter of public health and safety.
Our libel laws are not just a national disgrace, but an international concern. The UN Human Rights Committee singled the UK out for the impact of libel on freedom of expression; the USA has introduced legislation to protect its citizens from our libel courts.
The Defamation Bill promises to bring libel law into the 21st century by providing effective defences for online publication, it will stop corporations from bullying individuals into silence, put an end to trivial and vexatious claims, and introduce a long overdue public interest defence.
This is an historic moment for free speech in this country. As writers and members of English PEN, we ask you to honour your commitment and ensure that the bill completes its passage by the end of this session of Parliament.
Lisa Appignanesi, Jake Arnott, Julian Barnes, William Boyd, Amanda Craig, Margaret Drabble Antonia Fraser, Michael Frayn, Stephen Fry, Victoria Glendinning, Mark Haddon, David Hare, Ronald Harwood, Michael Holroyd, Howard Jacobson, Hisham Matar, Ian McEwan, Susie Orbach, Salman Rushdie, Philippe Sands, Will Self, Kamila Shamsie, Gillian Slovo, Ali Smith, Tom Stoppard, Claire Tomalin, Raleigh Trevelyan