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BBC presenter on why libel reform matters to each of us


Legal battle: Simon Singh

Legal battle: Simon Singh

Legal battle: Simon Singh

Fate almost conspired against us, but last week saw an incredibly successful event that should set the Northern Ireland Libel Reform Campaign fair for the challenges of 2015.

By events I mean the air space chaos over London which almost robbed us of four of our key speakers.

But they all made it over and back, although some by the finest of whiskers.

Regular Belfast Telegraph readers will recall that after an outcry, the Defamation Act 2013 was introduced in England and Wales, modernising archaic libel laws which had been described by one parliamentary committee as a "national humiliation".

The United Nations had said the High Court in London was chilling free speech not just in the UK, but also across the globe as foreign billionaires used the court to silence their domestic critics.

In the US, President Obama signed into law legislation that made UK libel damages unenforceable in the US.

It was always intended the Act would apply to Northern Ireland as the law had always been substantially the same here as in England and Wales. But it hasn't been extended and it's still unclear how this came about.

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There have been positive developments since the launch of the campaign. Over 90% of people who responded to Mike Nesbitt MLA's consultation backed reform.

The Northern Ireland Law Commission has now formally launched a detailed 158-page consultation paper inviting your views on reform here. This consultation, headed by Commissioner Dr Venkat Iyer, opened last month and closes on February 20.

But back to Friday night. The irrepressible Simon Singh - science writer and BBC presenter - kicked proceedings off, telling how he was almost ruined and bankrupted by a libel action taken against him by the British Chiropractic Association.

The lawsuit was one of the key cases that kick-started the original Libel Reform Campaign which achieved its aims in England and Wales. (A similar campaign is now under way in Scotland.)

Singh is a respected journalist and author of many books including Fermat's Last Theorem, The Code Book, Trick or Treatment? Alternative Medicine on Trial and The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets (which reveals mathematical concepts hidden in episodes of The Simpsons).

He won the case - known in legal annals as British Chiropractic Association (BCA) v. Singh - but faced almost two years of worry and still ended up thousands of pounds out of pocket.

The Wall Street Journal Europe cited BCA v. Singh as an example of how UK libel law "chills" free speech, saying that: "It is time British politicians restrain the law so that wisdom prevails in the land, and not errors." And so they did. But not here.

I had the pleasure of introducing Simon, plus other key speakers including Mike Harris of Index on Censorship, Jo Glanville of English PEN, and Sile Lane of Sense about Science, all of whom were key drivers of the original Libel Reform Campaign.

Our campaign - supported by the Belfast Telegraph and many other individuals and organisations - will step a gear in the new year, but in the meantime I would urge anyone who is interested to respond to the Law Commission's consultation paper via libelreform.org.

It's all very straightforward. A simple order by the Northern Ireland Assembly could apply the Act and it could all be voted through in one day.