Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Effects of English Libel Law on the Reporting of Parliamentary Proceedings

I have been been given this Press Release by the office of Dr Evan Harris MP (the MP for Science, Secularism, and Skepticism) in respect of tomorrow's parliamentary debate.

I am delighted to publish it in full.

If you can, do go along to the debate - it is not in the main House of Commons, but in its rather comfortable and nifty "Westminster Hall" venue, also located in the Houses of Parliament.

In any case, do write to your MP to get them to go and support Evan Harris in this debate - a guide to how to do this is provided by Simon Perry here.



Parliamentary ‘gag’ – MPs will ask Government to act

In the aftermath of Carter Ruck’s alleged attempts to gag The Guardian from reporting details of parliamentary proceedings, MPs will be debating the “Effects of English Libel Law on the Reporting of Parliamentary Proceedings” tomorrow in Westminster Hall, from 2:30 to 4pm.

The debate was secured by Lib Dem Dr Evan Harris MP.

In the debate, Dr Harris will:

- Criticise Carter-Ruck solicitors for informing The Guardian that reporting parliamentary proceedings would be a contempt of court, without qualifying it with a view that they now seem to agree with – that no court would consider or enforce such a publication as a contempt.

- Call for all future court orders and injunctions which prevent publication of a matter to make clear that the reporting of parliament is not affected in any way.

- Urge the Government to change the law so that so-called “super injunctions” which prevent the repeating of the fact that there has even been an injunction are not issued where there is a genuine public interest in the public knowing what is going on.

- That English libel laws need to be re-balanced in favour of a responsible defendant, to enable public interest defences to be more effective, and to end the status of London as the libel capital of the world.

Speaking before the debate, Dr Harris said:

“There is a lot of concern in Parliament and in the media over the impact of English law on freedom of expression, but the people who should be most concerned are the general public. Powerful interests are able to exploit our legal system in to prevent public interest matters – such as the dumping of toxic waste, or the evidence for the benefit of chiropractice on children’s health – being discussed.”

“The Government needs to do something about this instead of letting the public continue to be blinded by secretive injunctions and draconian libel suits.”


Notes to editors:

1. Details of the injunction preventing discussion of the Minton report can be found here:

2. Details of efforts by the British Chiropractic Association to prevent discussion of their claims that chiropractic can treat childhood asthma, colic and ear infections can be found here:

3. In a letter to the Speaker, Carter Ruck suggested that the Westminster Hall Debate secured by Dr Harris might be sub judice, and therefore inappropriate:

4. Prior to the debate Dr Harris convened cross-party meetings with both The Guardian and Carter Ruck.



McNulty said...

I know I promised not bother you again but the issues Jack is raising are so fascinating I'm finding it hard to get on with the day job.

At the outset, I need to stress that the only torch I'm carrying here is for the right to individual expression in law and science.

I wholeheartedly agree with everything in Dr Harris' press release except for one clause. You guessed it: "such as the dumping of toxic waste, or the evidence for the benefit of chiropractice on children’s health"

Groans all round. Including me :( But I'm groaning because I think the conflation of the Trafigura and BCA cases is such a gross irrationality it threatens to bring down the case for freedom of expression at its foundations resulting, ultimately, in less freedom of expression, not more.

It's because I support changes in the law to strengthen the right to individual expression that I'm begging the Science, Secularism and Skepticism alliance to look into the details more closely.

What is rationality except the balancing of ratios? The Scales of Justice and the Scientific Equation are similar in this respect. The first rule of rationality is the comparison of like with like. A pound of potatoes is not equal to a pound of flesh.

On the one hand we have a multinational corporation employing contempt of court legislation to have evidence that the dumping of toxic waste may have caused widespread illness kept out of court. On the other, an association of individual masseurs employing libel legislation to have evidence that their hands may not heal as much as they claim entered into court.

Where's the comparison? Trafigura and the BCA are opposite in almost every respect except one, perhaps. Both are trying to use the power of the law in an attempt to curtail the freedom, not of individuals, but of the press.

As Jack's Situations Z in his previous article shows, the interests of the individual and interests of the press are not the same. Just because the quality press differs from the tabloids in some respects doesn't mean they don't have many more things in common. All are rich and powerful corporations speaking one-to-many. All amplify their own voice at the expense of the individual.

Surely if we are to equate Trafigura with anything, it ought to be other rich and powerful corporations who have reason to have evidence of potential damage to health kept out of the public domain, not an association of individual practitioners who have reason to have evidence of potential benefits to health entered in?

Worse still. By taking a member of the press to court, the chiropractors could be seen as exercising their right to trial by law rather than trial by the media.

An argument falls at its weakest link. And to my mind this is it. Which is why I'm not getting why all the campaigns for freedom of expression insist on including it in.

In contrast, I have a whole flash drive full of examples of the suppression of the right to expression, not of lobby groups using the power of the law, but of individuals using the power of the press.

The press have no need of superinjunctions. They simply give free expression to those interests they wish to promote, refuse it to those they don't, and have representatives on the various complaints commissions who are so overworked they barely have time to acknowledge complaints, let alone deal with them.

As a scientist I was taught that spotting patterns, measuring relationships and reporting the results was the scientific method for discovering the underlying causes of phenomena.

It's in that spirit that I report here the curious phenomena that the corporations that feature most prominently in the cases of suppression of individual freedom of expression on my flash drive correlate significantly with those who are now advocating the conflation of Trafigura and the BCA to secure freedom of the press.

Which begs just one question. What matters most here? The freedom of the individual, or the freedom of the press?

You tell me.

Niklas said...

The Hansard record of the debate is here:

McNulty said...

Hi Niklas,

Thanks for the link. Don't know why, but I can hear John Thaw's voice in my ear:


Lewis at his desk in shirt sleeves, pen in hand, diligently working through a pile of forms. Morse laying back in his chair flicking through a report shaking his head. Throws report on desk and turns to gaze out the window.

MORSE: You know Lewis. There's something we're just not seeing here. Something that doesn't add up.

LEWIS: (frowning) Don't know about that. Seems pretty straightforward to me.

MORSE: Is it Lewis? Is it really? I mean, take this Hansard report. How many pages? (leafs through it). Four, give or take.


MORSE: So? Is that the sum total of your thoughts on the matter. So?

LEWIS: Well... (waving his hand across the mountains of paperwork in front of him) ...Ahm a bit busy like. If ye nah what ah mean.

MORSE: Yes, well. Why don't you stop counting your traffic tickets for a moment and think about it.

LEWIS: (grimacing, puts down his pen) OK then. Gan on. Sir.

MORSE: Four pages Lewis. One and a half hours of parliamentary time on changing the libel laws. A body of common law developed through case law since Roman times, soon to be overturned by statutory legislation aiming to prevent cover ups by people in high places.

LEWIS: Aye. So?

MORSE: Well don't you think there's anything odd about it?

LEWIS: Can't say I do No. Last time I looked they didn't have a section on parliamentary questions in the Sergeant's exams.

MORSE: (sighs) Just because they don't set exams on it doesn't mean it's not part of the job. We enforce the law Lewis. The law is set down by parliament. They don't set exams on putting on your trousers, but that doesn't mean you don't have to do it.

LEWIS: (irritated) And your point is?

MORSE: My point is this Lewis. The debate concerns changing the libel laws to prevent people in high places suppressing evidence of wrongdoing.

LEWIS: Yes. You've said that already. What's wrong with that then? Sounds like a good idea to me.

MORSE: It's not the idea Lewis. It's the implementation. The modus operandi, or MO as the Americans insist on calling it. How it's presented? How it turns out in the end? Just because you get an email from a barrister telling you he's got £25m sitting in a Nigerian bank account with your name on it, doesn't mean he has.

LEWIS: (stifling a laugh) So you're saying parliament is like the Nigerian Mafia?

MORSE: (strained) No I'm not saying that Lewis. That would be absurd. What I am saying is that there's something here that doesn't add up. I can't put my finger on it yet, but I can feel it in my bones.

LEWIS: Go on.

MORSE: Well take this report. Introducing a debate on "English Libel Law", the hon. Member for Oxford, Dr Harris, begins by declaring an interest as a member of the international board of a lobby group campaigning for press freedom.

LEWIS: Aye. Well what's wrong with that. Press freedom is good isn't it? Ah mean, that's what preserves the freedom of the individual from what your Guardian reading mates call the Police State.

MORSE: (sighing) I don't read the Guardian Lewis. Too many spelling mistakes. And, to be accurate, you would need to say "used to call the police state." Used to, not still do. Many of them now seem quite taken with the idea of using illiberal force to defend liberal freedoms - the right to wage war on illiberal regimes and put northern working class chauvinist pigs whose wives still cook dinner for them in their place, for instance.

LEWIS: (laughs) Aye. Got to admit you've got a point there like.

MORSE: And anyway Lewis, just because press freedom and individual freedom are types of freedom, doesn't mean they're the same. Any more than freedom of government or of the police. You get my point?

LEWIS: (shrugging) Well, ah suppose so. So what?

(To be continued if considered appropriate. If not, to be continued elsewhere.)