PEN/Index Libel Inquiry


*** UPDATE: On 10 November 2009, English PEN and Index on Censorship held a fascinating event to celebrate the publication of our joint report on English libel law reform, and the launch of the Libel Reform campaign, at the Free Word Centre. Please visit for more information. ***


According to the findings of the detailed inquiry, English libel law has a profoundly negative impact on freedom of expression, both in the UK and around the world.

Writers such as Simon Singh, and respected current affairs programme Newsnight, have found themselves facing defamation suits, while bloggers are often forced to edit and retract articles in the face of potential libel action.

The cost of libel law puts free speech up for sale: defending a libel action in English law is on average 140 times more expensive than elsewhere in Europe, while the bizarre definition of “publication” in English law has turned London into an international libel tribunal. This is, in fact,  the only area of English law where the defendant is guilty until proven innocent.

Index on Censorship and English PEN are proposing a number of recommendations in order to address these important concerns.

Among other things, we recommend that corporate bodies should be prevented from launching a libel action unless they can prove malicious falsehood.

English PEN and Index on Censorship, two of the UK’s leading free expression organisations, are conducting a public inquiry into libel legislation. The decision to launch this enquiry reflects increasing concern in this country and abroad about the extent to which our courts are being used, and abused, to stifle investigative journalism and chill free expression of all kinds.
The inquiry will invite submissions from publishers, writers, editors, journalists, lawyers and other interested parties. It will hold round-table discussions, leading to a major conference next spring.
The inquiry coincides with increasing concern in the House of Commons. The Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport is launching its own probe. In a related move, Denis MacShane MP has secured an adjournment debate on the operation of libel laws on Wednesday 17 December at 9.30am in Westminster Hall, with cross party support. The United Nations Human Rights Committee has already signalled its concern that English libel law discourages: ‘critical media reporting on matters of serious public interest, adversely affecting the ability of scholars and journalists to publish their work, including through the phenomenon known as libel tourism.’
Sir Geoffrey Bindman, one of Britain’s leading human rights lawyers, said of the joint inquiry: ‘There is a difficult balance to be struck between freedom of expression and the protection of the innocent from damaging falsehoods and invasion of legitimate privacy. In Britain, the pendulum has swung too far towards censorship. This comprehensive review of the law by two highly respected organisations is therefore very welcome.’
For further information please contact Jonathan Heawood, Director, English PEN, on 0788 907 1711/020 7324 2541, or Jo Glanville, Editor, Index on Censorship, on 0771 302 0971/020 7278 2313.
English PEN is a registered charity (number 1125610) working to promote literature and human rights. From defending the rights of persecuted writers to promoting literature in translation and running writing workshops in schools, English PEN seeks to promote literature as a means of greater understanding between the world’s people.
Index on Censorship is a registered charity (Writers and Scholars Educational Trust number 325003) promoting freedom of expression. Its award-winning magazine and website provide a window for original, challenging and intelligent writing on these vital issues. Its international projects in media, arts and education support freedom of expression around the world.

Related Articles:

To read The Libel Bind, please click here

To read Mariella Frostrup’s article ‘Draconian laws are no way to reform our ravenous media’, published 12 March 2009, please click here.

To read Alan Rusbridger’s article ‘Why libel trials are no longer David against Goliath’, published 23 February 2009, please click here.

To read ‘Are English courts stifling free speech around the world’, published 8 January 2009, please click here.

To read Craig Murray’s ‘Freedom of speech is worth more than money’, please click here.

To read Roy Greenslade’s article, ‘An end to the libel tourist trap’, published 20 October 2008, please click here.

To read George Monbiot’s article, ‘How can the rich still be buying our silence with this 13th-century law?’, published 17 September 2008, please click here.

To read Kate Gould’s article, ‘Lisa Appignanesi: Express Yourself’, published 12 September 2008, please click here.

To read a joint press release issued by Article 19 and Freedom House, ‘”Libel tourism”: A growing threat to free speech’, published on 21 May 2008, please click here.

To read English PEN’s bulletin, ‘English PEN welcomes repeal of blasphemy law’, published 6 March 2008, please click here.

To read English PEN’s bulletin, ‘Government action to repeal blasphemy law’, published 10 January 2008, please click here.

To read Lisa Appignanesi’s article, ‘Misguided and Obsolete’, published 5 January 2008, please click here.

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