How our libel laws censor scientists

While the US and other countries have brought their libel laws up to date, England still has a 19th-

When parliament returns from summer recess on 6 September, it will begin serious consideration of a draft libel reform bill. Scientists are quite rightly taking pride in how they helped to push the issue of libel up the political agenda.

One of the key arguments made by those of us connected with science was that many doctors, scientists and journalists sued in London, such as Ben Goldacre, Peter Wilmshurst, Francisco Lacerda, Henrik Thomsen and I (I was sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association in 2008; the case was eventually dropped in April 2010), would not have faced such threats from a US court because the United States has a far more liberal attitude to free speech. However, this has not always been the case.

In 1797, the Englishman William Cobbett was sued for libel in Philadelphia for criticising the highly respected American physician Benjamin Rush. Cobbett had stated that Rush had "contributed to the depopulation of the earth" in the wake of major yellow fever epidemics in 1794 and 1797.

Rush was a fierce advocate of bleeding patients and he would sometimes apply this method of treatment to a hundred patients in a single day. But the evidence appeared to indicate that his bloodletting sprees coincided with higher death rates.

Cobbett, who had very little chance of defending himself against a libel law that was largely based on the English system, lost the case. He was ordered to pay $5,000 compen­sation to Rush - then the largest award ever paid out in Pennsylvania.

Today, we know that bloodletting, which had been practised for thousands of years, did far more harm than good to patients. Cobbett was right to raise his concerns; however, he ended up being bankrupted instead of praised for writing his article on a matter of great public interest.

Speaking freely

The US libel system continued to follow its English counterpart - essentially quashing criticism and undermining free speech - until a landmark decision in 1964. The case revolved around an advertisement published in 1960 in the New York Times, asking for funds to defend Martin Luther King Jr, who was being accused of perjury.

Crucially, the advert mentioned the treatment of civil rights protesters in Montgomery, Alabama, which caused the Montgomery public safety commissioner, L B Sullivan, to sue. Even though Sullivan was not specifically mentioned in the newspaper advert, he won $500,000 in an Alabama court judgment. This was in addition to the $300m that news organisations across the US already owed the Southern states as a result of similar libel actions.

Not surprisingly, such mounting debts and the threat of further suits had a chilling effect on newspapers, but the New York Times decided to fight back by taking this particular case to the Supreme Court. The subsequent judgment shifted the balance towards the right to free speech, and away from the right to reputation, by declaring that public figures (such as officials or corporations) that sued for libel would have to prove so-called malice in order to succeed in winning a libel case.

In other words, even if a newspaper article turned out to be incorrect, it would remain on safe ground as long as its claims were neither motivated by malice nor based on reckless journalism. The American view is that a democratic society relies on journalists being able to criticise powerful corporations and individuals without being intimidated by them.

While the US and other countries have brought their libel laws up to date, England still has a 19th-century attitude to free speech. Our laws put every conceivable hurdle in front of any writer who tries to defend an article, blog post or research paper against a libel action.

Worse still, publication on the internet allows English laws to be used to threaten free speech globally. This embarrassing state of affairs means that we urgently need to push ahead with substantial libel reform - not just for our own sakes, but for the sake of writers all around the world. Some may argue that English reform should not go as far as adopting the US libel system. After all, why should corporations be prevented from suing for libel if their reputation has been sullied?

The American response is that companies do not need to sue for libel, because they have huge public relations budgets and can always counter criticism. And, in extreme cases, when journalists have acted unprofessionally, US companies still have the right to sue for malicious falsehood.

Bully boys

On balance, the Americans seem to have a better appreciation of the value of free speech and they have accordingly struck a fairer balance between reputation and the right to criticise. They feel it is better that companies be vulnerable to investigative journalism than to allow them to use libel law to bully their critics into silence.

We may not want English libel laws that completely mimic the US system in every detail. But there is a growing consensus that we need to shift, at the very least, towards the balance that emerged after the New York Times Company v Sullivan decision.

There are those with vested interests who argue against any move towards increased free speech, who defend the status quo and who criticise US libel laws. Such critics would do well to remember that, despite the liberal libel laws on the other side of the ocean, American civilisation has not yet crumbled and US capitalism has not collapsed. Free speech is a right, not a compromise.

Simon Singh is co-author of "Trick or Treatment? Alternative Medicine on Trial" (Corgi, £8.99). He campaigns for libel reform.

This article first appeared in the 16 August 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The war against science

Show Hide image

Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.