Friday, 7 May 2010

Libel Reform the Day After the General Election

The unfortunate defeats of Dr Evan Harris and Joanne Cash leave the cause of libel reform with no clear champion in the new House of Commons.

There are supporters - yes - but there is now no obvious parliamentarian to take the lead.

And the cause of libel reform is hindered more generally by the relatively small number of returned Liberal Democrat MPs.

This is a set-back.

(The loss of Dr Evan Harris is also a blow across a range of secularist, evidence-based, and rationalist issues; and all skeptics should be seeking to help him back into the House of Commons at the very earliest opportunity.)

In some ways, this is like the morning after Simon Singh's defeat at the preliminary hearing at the High Court.

However, all is not lost.

We have had set-backs before; but we have rallied, and we have prevailed.

The Ministry of Justice is engaged, and it may still publish a draft Bill and secure crucial parliamentary time.

Also the main three political parties did include libel reform in their manifestos.

And we have public support, and a well-organised campaign at

But the first session of this new hung parliament will be busy and perhaps erratic.

The parliament may not even last long.

As in 1974, there could well be a second general election within a year.

In either case, a libel reform Bill could get overlooked.

So, without Dr Evan Harris or Joanne Cash inside the Commons, it is now more important than ever for constituents outside the Commons to keep the pressure on MPs - and indeed on all candidates should there be this second general election.

And, who knows, a new parliamentary champion may even come to the fore.

New MPs may be especially receptive to their first experiences of lobbying and to letters addressed to them with MP after their name.

(You can write to them as [Name] MP, House of Commons, London S1A 0AA - yours may be amongst the first letters they open on their first day - and go and visit them at their first surgeries.)

Although the general election result is a set-back, most of the pre-conditions of libel reform are still in place: (a) departmental engagement, (b) express support of political parties, and (c) public clamour.

What we have lost is the dynamic force which would have been provided by a couple of active MPs and a large Liberal Democrat return.

But that loss can, to an extent, be made good by constituent pressure - whether there is a second general election or an ongoing hung parliament.

The need for libel reform remains urgent.

Things are simply not being published when it would be in the public interest for them to be published, just because of the awful state of English libel law and the threat of libel litigation even if a defence is available.

It is sad - one hopes temporaily - to lose Dr Evan Harris, and to not gain Joanne Cash.

However, we can help fill this breach.

Libel reform is now a little more difficult; but it certainly remains possible.


No purely anonymous comments will be published; always use a name for ease of reference by other commenters.


AndyD said...

Wow. Condolences to rationalist UK voters. Seems this was quite unexpected.

Was voter turn-out high or low?

(It seems odd from here that you have a voluntary system AND vote on a working day)

Steve Jones said...

Turnout was a little higher than in the past few elections, but not drastically so. All UK elections are way down on turnout compared to the 50s and 60s when upwards of 80% was the norm. it's considered to be good within 15% of that.

As far as why this happens? I'm afraid it's simply because, for the vast majority of people, terms like "evidence based policy" and "libel reform" is just so much noise. Only if it's turned into things that matter to them in terms they directly engage with - Taxes, education policy, benefits, health and the like - will they take much notice.

Those of us who are rationalists are very much in the minority - it's quite simply just not how the majority of the public make their mind up about things like who to vote for or what they feel on an issue.

Of course it is of intense interest to a minority, but unless picked up by the mainstream it's going to pass people by. For the great majority of the population, to whom libel law is an utter irrelevance to their immediate well being, it is simply invisible. If, like the US, we had very strong constitutional rights on free speech, then maybe it would be of more public interest. However, we don't, and in many ways legislation in the last 15 years has tightened controls on free speech at the behest of both European and UK authorities.

It's always a mistake to think the obsessions of the few are the concerns of the many.

Mark said...

I've been following Dr Harris's constituency closely throughout this election and was thouroughly depressed by the outcome. I hope the hateful leaflet campaigns against him are not responsible for this.

I've got a good feeling about my new MP in Cambridge, Julian Huppert - see - note his answer to the libel reform question. If anyone is to take up the mantle of Dr Harris, he seems like a good choice. I think I'll write to him over the weekend. I've never sent a letter to an MP before but this is an issue I care about.

Racheal said...

Evan Harris is not a loss. It is a great benefit to Oxford that he has been ousted. This man is not a voice for rational thinking. I have been present at debates he has spoken at and he has consistently been ill informed, presumptuous and arrogant. I personally consider the result in Oxford to be a great victory for very simple reason this man has not been voted in again. Perhaps now he will do some research before he enters into debates.

Richard W said...

Steve Jones' post is spot on.

For the huge majority of good decent people in the UK, names like Simon Singh and Ben Goldacre mean nothing. Most of the general public will have never have heard of them, and, unless one of them starts dating Cheryl Cole (who, I'm reliably informed, is now available) they are unlikely ever to be household names.

All is not lost, however. Individual MPs have disproportionately large influences, and if you are able to engage with yours you may be able to persuade them to look deeper into rationalist ideas and libel reform - particularly those with a scientific background.

I will be trying to meet with my new LibDem MP soon (while he's still wet behind the ears) and try to persuade him to take an interest in the reform of the libel laws.

Perhaps you might give us the names of those MPs who have done more than Dr Harris promoting rational thinking and libel reform? Every little helps.