Just want to write a quick piece about an event I had the pleasure of working on last night, science writer Simon Singh discussing the English libel laws and his own experience of being prosecuted for libel due to a piece he wrote questioning the efficacy of chiropracty (!).
The event was in conjunction with English PEN (http://www.englishpen.org) who do a great deal of good work highlighting the plight of imprisoned writers, and they are also instrumental in setting up the capmpaign for Libel Reform.
To summarise (for I am no legal mastermind), the libel laws in this country basically date back to the time of duelling between the aristocracy, as a way of challenging someone who was defaming you without, y'know, killing them. Duelling now seems to be the easier less stressful option.
Singh talked of his, and many others (including the excellent science writer Ben Goldacre of 'Bad Science' fame) experience of having written an article for the Guardian, and subsequently being sued by the aggrieved party despite the fact that he had evidence to back up what he was saying. The horrendous costs of fighting a libel lawsuit immediately cause a number of writers/publications to back off immediately or retract and apology, effectively closing debate on certain areas, putting the advantage to the mega-rich and powerful corporations who can silence debate and dissent purely on the grounds that they have the money to back it up. Singh won his case, yet still accrued costs of £250,000 of costs which he is still fighting to claim back from the chiropractic association that sued him.
He went on to explain a phenomenon called 'libel tourism' - where, a Saudi billionaire can sue an American writer who linked him obliquely to terrorist funding, in London due to the fact that the writers' book was available to UK audiences and the billionaire had vested interests (e.g. property, businesses) in London. That, if you don't mind me saying, is fucked up.
So you should probably sign the petition, right?