The Big Libel Gig: Tim Minchin and More

Yesterday, Neil Denny and I hung out backstage at The Big Libel Gig to talk to performers about science, skepticism, and the UK’s crap libel laws. We asked each performer to libel one of the other performers, and got some very interesting stories out of it. Here’s part one of two, featuring Simon Singh, Ariane Sherine, Tim Minchin, Tracey Brown, and Richard Wiseman:

[audio:|titles=The Big Libel Gig Pt 1: Simon Singh, Ariane Sherine, Tim Minchin, Tracey Brown, Richard Wiseman|artists=Skepchick Podcast]

(Also available on iTunes or via RSS)

In addition to the audio, which will go on the Skepchick podcast and the Little Atoms podcast, I also got a few videos. Here’s Tim Minchin, with more to come soon:

EDIT: Once again, sorry for not hanging out right after the show and sorry for any loopiness in the interviews; both are related to the fact that I only just got my voice back and was still really ill. Bleh.

Video transcript (thanks Jeff) after the break!

>> Tim: Who am I going to libel?

>> Rebecca: Anybody you want.

>> Tim: What about Rebecca Watson, is she on the bill?

>> Neil: She’s not on the bill, but you could libel Rebecca, that’s fine.

>> Rebecca: You could libel me.

>> Tim: [quietly] slut?

>> Neil: No, that’s not nice.

>> Rebecca: No, it can’t be true.

>> Tim: Oh.

>> Neil: It’s supposed to be libel, that’s the whole point.

>> Rebecca: Yeah

>> Tim: Um

>> Rebecca: saying I was a –

[talking over each other]

>> Neil: -nunnery.

>> Tim: She’s, uh, frigid.

>> Rebecca: Won’t do anal.

>> Tim: Rebecca Watson’s just totally frigid.

>> Rebecca: Yes, ok.

>> Neil: Right, should we start?

>> Rebecca: I think we should.

>> Neil: I was going to lead back here-

>> Tim: So this is our third…

>> Rebecca: I’m going to go back-

>> Heave we started? We’ve started, haven’t we?

>> Neil: Yeah, but I can um…

>> Rebecca: Not officially.

>> Tim: No, I think you should always start ‘in medias res’.

>> Rebecca: Yeah.

>> Neil: Yeah?

>> Tim: Yeah.

>> Rebecca: You just like using Latin.

>> Tim: Yeah.

>> Neil: What does that mean? Can you translate as well when you do that?

>> Tim: I think it’s-

[talking over each other]

>> Neil: – translate afterwards.

>> Rebecca: Or as you know, you know, yeah.

>> Tim: I don’t know, in the middle of things. It’s just one of those – je ne sais quoi.


>> Neil: how are we actually doing this thing anyway.

>> Tim: This is it: we’re doing it now!

>> Neil: Are we doing the whole you thing again, or are we-

>> Rebecca: Yeah!

>> Tim: I’ve been on the show three times.

>> Neil: Exactly, but we have this ludicrous gimic where we do: ‘Who are you, we don’t know you, we’ve never met you before.’

>> Rebecca: It’s all right, I’ve got it under control.

>> Tim: Ok.

>> Neil: Ok.

>> Rebecca: Neil and I are sitting here with someone who’s been on the
show many times. What is your name?

>> Tim: Tim Minchin.

>> Rebecca: Tim Minchin. And what do you do for a living, Tim?

>> Tim: I’m a musician.

>> Rebecca: Ok [chuckling]

>> Tim: Everybody laughs when I say that.

>> Neil: Why are we all here tonight?

>> Tim: I’m here tonight to do a show to widen people’s understanding of the need for Libel Reform UK – my home, adopted home.

>> Rebecca: And why do we need to reform libel laws?

>> Tim: Because they have been crap for years and years and years, and it’s a total embarrassment. It’s an international embarrassment, UK libel laws. It’s too expensive for normal people to defend themselves, basically, if people want to sue them for libel.

And that’s really bad. And I was thinking, it’s what — it only really hit me today. The thing that’s really — reason it’s sort of come to a head now, even though, as I say, it’s been questioned and people have been trying to sort of massage the existing laws for years and years. The reason it’s come to a head now, that actually needs to change, is that the way we get our information has changed. Because the people that we get our information from now, like bloggers and podcasters and all that, they are even more ill equipped to deal with the hundred and forty times average cost.

>> Neil: They’ve not got media conglomerates with their money behind-

>> Tim: That’s right, and they don’t get to benefit from the um, what they call, there’s a couple of legal loop-holes that journalists can claim.

>> Neil: The Reynolds, and-

>> Tim: Yeah, and the qualifiers, you know. And they don’t get to use them because they’re not officially journalists, and if they’re not they’re they’re just spotty nerds in their mom’s basement. And so, And they have to, and as blogger’s power increases, so too is it important that they are held to account. It’s not that we don’t need a law holding people to account if they’re completely out of control, even if they are spotty nerds in their mom’s basement. But they need to be able to defend themselves from libel litigation, and they wouldn’t be able to afford it. Because they’re spotty nerds, and spotty nerds don’t have jobs.

>> Rebecca: So what gets you interested in the cause of bloody nerds?

>> Tim: Um, I don’t know what my fuckin’ thing is. I like stuff that just makes sense, doesn’t it? I get turned on by shit that makes sense. I came to this story of Simon Singh’s case, which is the thing that sort of got this particular version of the ball rolling. And Simon had become a vague friend through these sciency nerdy gigs, and through having read his books. And when I write my material, although I’m a comedian and I can get away with pretty much anything, ’cause- really is carte blanche when you’re on stage. People – if someone tried to see, they might be able to, but hey, people don’t, and if they did you’d go what’s the theatrical construct you’re doing.

But I actually, on a personal level, try to never say anything that’s not demonstrably… true. Well no, that’s not true, but when I’m talking about science, and medicine, and all that I try to be really through. And Simon’s always been one of my sources, you know. Because someone else has to do the work (because I don’t have time to do it).

>> Neil: At the same time as well, this is – the Simon Singh thing is about scientists should be able to go about scientific research without worrying about libel.

>> Tim: Yeah.

>> Neil: You’re an entertainer, and last year we had the Jonathan Ross – Russell Brand thing and there’s been a sort of chilling affect about, particularly at the BBC and whatever, about offends and stuff, which sort of, it’s a similar thing.

>> Tim: Yeah, absolutely, I’m extremely interested. You happened to point out something that should be really obvious to me, from the inside out. That my whole shows are about what’s offensive, in a way. I mean I’m not a sort of cutting-edge trying to offend everyone comedian, but I’m extremely interested in why we’re offended by what we’re offended by, and even the notion of offense. And there’s no doubt that the law in the UK, the libel laws in the UK reflect a general sort of conservatism that is born of some by-gone era, you know. They are two- they’re obviously very married, but they are two issues, aren’t they? The legal, the sort of legal conservatism, but the sort of seeming rise of moral conservatism beginning of this century. I don’t understand it. And is- we’re inclined to see patterns where they don’t exist. Am I right? Is there a rise of moral conservatism?

>> Neil: I think so, definitely.

>> Rebecca: I would agree with that.

>> Tim: Since the seventies probably, you know, it’s like-

>> Neil: Perhaps it’s something that is always there.

>> Rebecca: Well-

>> Neil: It manifests itself in different ways. It’s computer games at the minute, isn’t it? Whereas it would have been comics twenty years ago or something.

>> Rebecca: Well yeah, and if you look at, I think that the atheist movement has been responsible for a lot of backlash from Christian conservatives who see atheists like Richard Dawkins and Chris Hitchens and those people as threats. So they really ride that moral conservatism train.

>> Tim: I think we really need more cuddly atheists. [laughing] I try to be a more cuddly atheist. I’ve got a song! Does anybody want to hear a song? I can do a funny song.

>> Rebecca: Yeah, you can do it right now. [laughing]

>> Tim: yeah, it’s just, yeah, it’s a poem… prickly atheist.

>> Rebecca: Now you’re, I’d say you’re fairly cuddly, yeah. Scale of one to ten, I’d say what, like seven.

>> Neil: I’ll give you eight.

>> Rebecca: Really?

>> Tim: I try to be- I have Christian fans, you know. [car horn] So. They’re obviously a bit thick, but still…

>> Neil: Well, to finish up then Tim, we’re inviting everyone that we speak to tonight to, in the spirit of the evening, to basically say something libelous or defamatory about somebody they know or another performer tonight or something.

>> Tim: Who’s on the bill?

>> Rebecca: We’ve got Richard Wiseman, Evan Harris-

>> Tim: Richard Wiseman’s illiterate, he gets someone else to write books. Evan Harris is, um, into bestiality.

>> Rebecca: Simon Singh?

>> Tim: Um, ah, has a got a false leg.

>> Rebecca, Neil: [laughing]

>> Rebecca: How is that defamatory?

>> Tim: Well, if people knew that, he wouldn’t have a leg to stand on. That is not, I didn’t mean that, that’s wasn’t why I said that. Just where we ended up.

>> Rebecca: That’s… Niel brought us here, really we can-

>> Niel: Yeah, I apologize.

>> Rebecca: How about one more for Ben Goldacre?

>> Tim: Goldacre? You can’t defame him, he’s perfect! Talk about cuddly. He’s so sweet.

>> Niel: I think that’s defamatory enough.

>> Rebecca: [laughing] I think he’s- he’s writing his MP right now.

>> Tim: Goldacre’s a homeopath.

>> Rebecca: You heard it here first, from Tim Minchin. If anybody wants to sue.

>> Niel: Thanyou.

>> Rebecca: Thankyou Tim.

>> Tim: Ciao, Ciao.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor.

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  1. A slight nitpick, but there is no UK libel law. There is a separate legal system in Scotland – libel is included under defamation there.

    The law that people are talking about being reformed is the England+Wales libel law.

    The Scottish defamation law isn’t actually that bad. The main difference is that in Scotland the claimant must show that malice was intended – it’s highly likely that if the Scottish law was applied throughout the UK, Simon Singh, for example, would never have been sued.

    You will notice that libel actions against Scottish newspapers are almost never heard in Scottish courts.

  2. No, you asked them to slander the other performers. (“Defame” would also work, although it is less specific.)

    Yay, I beat the rest and get to be first pedant!

  3. @Andrew Nixon: Hi Andrew, the nitpick is appreciated but unnecessary. I specifically wrote UK instead of just England because the petition is also relevant to Scottish MPs and the Libel Coalition is in need of their support as well.

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