South Park slipped in a joke aimed at the United Kingdom in its famous Scientology episode where, after Stan calls the religion a scam and deems Tom Cruise’s acting to be merely “okay,” Cruise runs sobbing off the screen, shouting over his shoulder: “I’ll sue you! I’ll sue you in England!”
The joke is actually a rather dark one—so true was this little prod about England’s infamous libel law that British stations actually refused to show that particular episode for fear of litigation from the Church of Scientology. These are courts where Russian oligarchs can sue Russian journalists for slander, and have done so at crippling costs to the journalist, even when the claims are true. The foreign phenomenon has even earned the nickname “libel tourism,” and is by no means limited to Russia; journalists writing about Icelandic banks, Saudi Arabian princes and American movie stars have experienced the force of British defamation law without ever having to visit the misty isles.
The intense power behind a mere accusation of libel is hard to exaggerate, and we have a lot of reason to care about it. In addition to the threat to writers, British journalist Nick Cohen makes a strong case in his book, “You Can’t Read This Book” that the threat of retribution to potential whistleblowers on Wall Street was one of the biggest factors in allowing the 2008 sub-prime mortgage crises to happen. In point of fact, many of Cohen’s cited cases were phrased hypothetically or otherwise hedged so that his title didn’t become a more literal description. While some of these instances aren’t directly the result of British libel law, the mentality and effect of other legal constraints against slander is essentially the same. Broadly speaking, this brand of censorship has significantly dampened the progress of science, journalism, politics, economics, medicine, business, comedy and even daily conversation.
This is why we can all celebrate (a rare thing when studying international politics) the fact that the libel law reform campaign has been at least partially successful. On April 25, Parliament approved a law making it much more difficult to use the courts to attack the press or otherwise suppress dissenting opinions. Many thanks to the science community for their efforts in making that happen.
The war is not won however—far from it. The directional shift of Britain back to its own enlightenment values is marred by the dangerous slippage of other countries and institutions. Imitation policies, enforcing particular views on what is respectful and what is true, are quickly bringing others into the pit it’s taken Britain so long to climb out of.
The attempt to impose truth, or even good manners, by force has proved over and over again to be a failure. This time it happened to be Britain’s libel law, but it’s a globally replicable effect, and it’s a lesson we should take to heart. If we want to reap the benefits of skeptical inquiry, we must also accept the associated risks. We can’t have one without the other, and the attempt to escape all hurt feelings and falsehoods while still pursuing truth will ultimately fail on both fronts as it always has.