There’s nothing funny about libel law says Dara O’Briain

Dara O’Briain is probably best known for endeavouring to keep Frankie Boyle on a leash on ‘mock the week’. But O’Briain is not just a mouthy bloke of the telly, it appears he also has an interest in free speech.

I recently blogged in some detail about how the English libel laws are not only unfair, but also the laughing-stock of the rest of the free-thinking world. More and more people are waking up to this fact and making their voices heard on the issue. On wednesday O’Briain joined Ben Goldacre and the editor of The Economist John Miklethwait, among others to speak at the official launch of the campaign at the Law Society in London. Yesterday the campaigners took their mesage to the houses of parliament.

Nick Ross address the launch

The man of the moment; Simon Singh has his say

The problem is that here in England the libel laws are hopelessly biased against the defendant, meaning that writers and broadcasters are often dissuaded from running stories that cast even the slightest doubt on dodgy scientific claims. Simon Singh (above), for example, is currently in the midst of a costly and long-running case against the British Chiropractic Association.

Unless they are sure of their facts, companies can use the libel law to bully defendants into an out of court settlement – effectively silencing them. Nowhere else in the world is the situation as silly as it is here, indeed, funny man O’Briain joked at the session that his comments ‘come at a great personal cost’, as until recently he had been ‘running a travel agency specialising in libel tourism’.

Dara O'Brien chats at the Law Society, London

Dara O’Briain chats at the Law Society, London

An all-star line up of signatures on the petition includes A. C. Grayling, Jim Al Khalili, Simon Singh and Nick Ross.

We can all agree that this kind of dissent-quashing is not in the public interest. Our laws and policies need to be based upon evidence. Doubt is a useful thing in science which, in theory, eventually leads us to some kind of truth. Having questioning minds blunted by money is surely not the situation we want for our media or our country.

Thankfully, the high-profile personalities which have now become involved in the campaign seem to be having an effect. It appears MPs are now taking this problem seriously, as the BBC report justice secretary Jack Straw is now drafting proposals for reform, having commented last month that ‘radical change is needed’.

Photography credit

Due to being a poor PhD student I wasn’t able to foot the bill for a train ticket to attend the London event. However, a big thank you to Julia Wilson from Sense about science for providing the photographs for this piece.

Sign the online petition here.

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