Libel Reform and Quickie Research on Online Politics

Posted on April 9, 2010


For a mere £200,000, Simon Singh has won the right to free speech.

He has won an appeal against the libel action brought against him by the British Chiropractic Association, when Singh pointed out the lack of evidence for their claims. Instead of honouring his right to commit his thoughts to writing and simply countering him with the evidence, they decided to take advantage of the archaic, unjust libel laws of England to sue him into submission.

As I have already written, this case has sparked off a whole campaign to reform the libel laws. Unfortunately, there is now an imminent general election in the United Kingdom, and, according to the BBC Election coverage ticker-type thingy, the current Labour government is scrapping whatever plans it had for these reforms.

This raises the question of who to vote for, if libel reform is an issue you care about. It can be difficult to find out quite elementary things like a party’s stance on issues, especially during election-time, when policies and issues appear to be left aside in favour of political marketing campaigns. Similarly to Noam Chomsky’s criticisms of US politics, figuring these things out about UK parties requires some research to penetrate the rhetoric and get to some sort of grokkable details.

This led me to perform a little quickie research project: I wanted to find the position held by a number of parties on this specific and current issue as advertised on their website, seemingly the perfect venue for objective policy information. Considering contemporary information technology capabilities, the lack of results I got when performing searches of their websites was quite striking and disheartening.

Searching for libel law on the Conservative Party site got 5 results, none of which were related to reform.

A search of the Liberal Democrats brought no policy results. Perhaps the most representative result was this article, from January this year, in which the leader, Nick Clegg, correctly acknowledged the problems and called for reform, but gave no details.

Incredibly, the Labour Party website doesn’t even provide a search function. Using Google to search the domain for libel law returned 3 results, none of which were related to reform.

When I looked at the Green Party website, I found only policies on abolishing blasphemous libel (seemingly outdated, since blasphemous libel has been superseded by the rather more sinister Racial and Religious Hatred Act). However, I did discover that the Greens are not above launching libel action themselves, against the Liberal Democrats no less. “The Lib Dems vs. The Greens” is an interesting aside, by the way. I discovered that the Lib Dems formed strategies for combating the Greens, because of their potential for stealing away voters, anticipating that they appeal to a similar demographic. It seems the Liberal Democrats and the Greens are enemies because they share common ground.

At this point, I stopped. I was sick of politics after less than half an hour researching into it.

It then struck me that, while individuals within political parties may favour libel reform, perhaps the institutions themselves are quite resistant to it, especially the larger parties. After all, why should the opposite be true? The libel laws favour the rich and the powerful, like political parties, who, according to Peter Oborne, are increasingly under the influence of other rich and powerful players. They know that use of the libel laws can be a quick and handy weapon in a legal arsenal.

I fear, therefore, that libel reform will be even harder to obtain than I first anticipated.

Posted in: Off-topic, Research