The Free Press

No. 8 of #50cases.

The year is 1961. A woman in the UK gives birth to her child. But something is wrong. The newborn child has deformed limbs. Here began a case which would call into question the state of free press in the UK.

The cause of the defects was Thalidomide, a drug first produced in 1957 in Germany, and released in the UK in 1958. It was popular with many pregnant women for reducing morning sickness. Unfortunately, Thalidomide caused devastating harm to unborn babies. Over ten thousand children across the world were born with severe birth defects. The drug manufacturer, Distillers, entered talks with the victims’ families to compensate them for the damage caused by the drugs.

Meanwhile, there was a swelling of public outrage. The Sunday Times launched a campaign in support of the victims. However, the Attorney General stopped the publication of a particular article, which detailed the history and negligence involved in the drug’s development. The Attorney General argued that the article would be a contempt of court, as it would unfairly influence the on-going negotiations between the victims’ parents and Distillers.

The Human Rights Court ruled that the Attorney General violated the Sunday Times’ right to freedom of expression. They said that “the thalidomide disaster” was “a matter of undisputed public concern.”  Therefore, the press had a right to inform the public about the facts of the case, and the victims’ families had a right to learn the truth about the drugs.

The legacy of Thalidomide remains with us. The drug is still used – albeit in limited circumstances – to help treat cancer patients. Surviving victims are still fighting to gain compensation. Yet this story shows that in a case of exceptional public interest, the general public have a right to know the truth behind a tragedy.

Image Credit: pxhere

This story is a short summary of a legal decision. You can read the full text here