The Geek Manifesto opens with the story of one of the most remarkable examples of geek activism to date: the extraordinary support given to the science writer Simon Singh when he was sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association.
The backing that Singh received from a grassroots army of skeptics and science bloggers steeled his nerve to defend the libel action successfully, and turned the BCA’s decision to resort to law into a spectacular example of the Streisand Effect. Their actions turned the spotlight on the lack of evidence for chiropractors’ claims, and their complaints to regulatory authorities led many chiropractors to withdraw promotional material that was highly misleading.
The case, and the support that Singh received, was also instrumental in placing libel reform on the political agenda. Tens of thousands of people signed an online petition for libel reform, and all three main parties promised to take the issue forward in their 2010 general election manifestos.
When The Geek Manifesto went to press, i wasn’t yet able to say quite where this initiative had led. But it seems likely that we will find out the day before the book is published. The Queen’s Speech takes place on Wednesday May 9. And there is a good chance that it will include a Libel Reform Bill — given the Government’s support for this, it would certainly be very disappointing if this is absent.
The Government’s draft proposals deserve two rather than three cheers. As the Libel Reform Campaign points out, the Draft Defamation Bill is considerably weaker than it could be.
The Ministry of Justice has published a statement in response to the report of the Joint Scrutiny Committee on the Draft Defamation Bill last year. Its commitment to a Bill is welcome recognition of the serious problems faced by NGOs, scientists, bloggers and authors – problems set out in wide-ranging evidence by the Libel Reform Campaign and by hundreds of individuals and organisations.
The Government has said it will make changes to introduce a single publication rule and reduce libel tourism and has proposed many beneficial and well-grounded changes to procedure and existing defences.
However, the Government’s initial response falls short of what is needed in some important areas:
The current libel laws chill speech on matters of public interest and on expressions of opinion on matters in the public realm. We need a new effective statutory public interest defence. Instead, the Government is only proposing minor changes to an already complex, unwieldy and expensive defence, called “Reynolds Privilege”.
Libel laws are used by corporations and associations to squash any criticism and manage their brand. The laws need rebalancing to protect the ordinary individual or responsible publisher, by restricting the ability of such “non-natural persons” to sue for libel or threaten to do so.
The law allows trivial and vexatious claims. There should be easier “strike out” of trivial or inappropriate claims at an early stage.
Notwithstanding these criticisms, if a Bill is published on Wednesday it’ll be a huge achievement for a campaign that began with geeks. And it will also create another important opportunity for lobbying and campaigning — we need to make our voices heard so that the eventual legislation is as comprehensive as it can be, including a public interest defence.