A year ago, the Independent ran a story – Invasion of the libel tourists – about U.S. celebrities being encouraged by British media lawyers to take advantage of the U.K.’s tougher libel laws.
The trend started in 2000, when Russian oligarch-turned-ÈmigrÈ Boris Berezovsky sued U.S. business magazine Forbes. The case went all the way to the House of Lords, which ruled that – since the magazine was widely available on the internet and Berezovsky had sufficient business interests in Britain to have been damaged – the court had jurisdiction.
Criticism of English libel law
Last year, the New York State legislature passed the Libel Terrorism Prevention Act to protect writers from foreign judgments in countries that do not meet the free-speech standards of the United States.
And the United Nations Committee on Human Rights has denounced English defamation law for “discouraging critical media reports on matters of serious public interest, adversely affecting the ability of scholars and journalists to publish their work, and encouraging libel tourism.”
In January 2009, The Economist carried a story about two
Ukrainian-based news organisations sued in London by Rinat Akhmetov, one of
Ukraine’s richest men:
“[T]he Kyiv Post, had barely 100 subscribers in Britain. It hurriedly
apologised as part of an undisclosed settlement. Mr. Akhmetov then won another
judgment, undefended, against Obozrevatel (Observer), a Ukraine-based internet
news site that publishes only in Ukrainian, with a negligible number of readers
Dawkins conference speech
“It is a lamentable observation that because of the way our laws are skewed
in favour of the plaintiff, London has become the libel capital of the
Mr. Dawkins went on to discuss the case of Simon Singh, a British journalist, who is being sued
by the British Chiropractic Association over an article criticising chiropractic
claims to cure asthma:
“I and many of my colleagues fear that if he loses it will have major
implications on the freedom of scientists, researchers and other commentators
to engage in robust criticism of scientific, and pseudoscientific, work.
“Scientists often disagree with one another, sometimes passionately. But
they don’t go to court to sort out their differences, they go into the lab,
repeat the experiments, carefully examine the controls and the statistical
“If the British Chiropractic Association was really sincere, it wouldn’t go
into court to sue Singh. It could have taken up the … offer of a right of
reply. Or better, it could go into the lab and do an experiment to show him
wrong. Why doesn’t it submit its case to the higher scientific test? I think
we all know the answer.
“Or will I be sued for saying that? The trouble is, it’s hard to know. That
is the point. Do we really want discussions on matters of science, evidence,
and medicine, and indeed any area of public interest, to be conducted in an
atmosphere of fear and uncertainty?”
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