Leader: Britain’s chilling libel laws must be reformed

The UK's libel system has enabled an extraordinary assault on free speech to take place. Labour must

In an interview with us last week, the great investigative journalist Seymour Hersh described Britain's libel laws as "chilling" and expressed sympathy for those who struggle to defend independent journalism. Hersh's words reflect the extraordinary assault on free speech that this country's draconian libel system has allowed to take place. The recent attempt by the law firm Carter-Ruck to prevent the Guardian and others from reporting a parliamentary question over alleged dumping of toxic waste by the oil company Trafigura demonstrated how deeply the rot has set in. On that occasion, Carter-Ruck's absurd "super-injunction", which prevented the media from revealing even the existence of the gagging order, was undone by a community of tweeters and bloggers. But others continue to be menaced by individuals and corporations that use our laws to bully and to suppress free debate and fair comment.

The distinguished scientist Simon Singh is fighting a case, brought against him by the British Chiropractic Association, over claims about practitioners' treatments. Singh is an example of someone who, at great human and financial cost, has chosen to defend free speech. Many of his colleagues, seeing the odds stacked against them, chose to suppress their findings. Another target is the British cardiologist Peter Wilms­hurst, who is being sued by the US company NMT Medical for questioning the effectiveness of a new heart implant device. That the medical firm chose not to sue the American health website that first published his comments, but chose to target Mr Wilmshurst in this country, is indicative of London's shameful status as the libel capital of the world.

Britain has become the destination of choice for oligarchs and plutocrats who wish to evade scrutiny and intimidate their opponents. So feared are UK libel laws that several states in the US have introduced legislation declaring British libel judgments unenforceable in America. But now, finally, there are signs that our political class is waking up to what has become a national embarrassment. The Justice Secretary, Jack Straw, in his interview with Jason Cowley on page 26, announces that he will reform the system of "no win, no fee" litigation, which can make it prohibitively expensive for publishers to defend themselves. He says that he is drawing up proposals to end libel tourism by introducing a "radically reduced cap" on the level of success fees. The cap, we hope, will be as low as 10 per cent of costs.

Reform in this area is long overdue; a recent report by Oxford University showed that the cost of fighting a libel action in England is 140 times greater than the European average. Any just legal system must provide some redress against malicious allegations, but there is a growing awareness that this imperative has been allowed to crowd out almost all others. Lord Lester, the respected human rights lawyer, is drawing up a defamation reform bill that would ease the burden on defendants. As well as reforming "no win, no fee" arrangements, it would prevent foreigners from suing in the British courts unless they can demonstrate that they have suffered "real harm" in this country, and would give publications a stronger public-interest defence against legal action.

Since its election in 1997, Labour has faced both ways on civil liberties. It was Labour that incorporated the European Convention on Human Rights into domestic law and gave us the Freedom of Information and Data Protection Acts. But it was also Labour that subsequently smothered FoI requests, leaving the measure unworthy of its name, and, under the guise of anti-terrorism measures, launched one of the biggest ever peacetime assaults on civil liberties. Now, as the party nears the end of its third term in office, and contemplates the deeds undone and promises unfulfilled, here is a chance to do some good in the time that remains.