Simon Singh Case Leads to Calls for Libel Reform

Once again, the cry has gone up demanding the reform of libel law in the UK. And as ever, I’m more than happy to join the chorus – although I’m not expecting much to actually happen. For two years now now, the world has been disgusted by judgements and threats that have hampered the critical scrutiny of Saudi billionaires; however, despite various meetings and complaints, no reforms have so far been undertaken.

This year it’s science journalist Simon Singh, who is supposed to have committed libel by suggesting that the British Chiropractic Association promotes “bogus”  treatments. According to Justice Eady, this amounts to saying that chiropractors are involved in deliberate deception.

A high-profile statement has now been released:

…Singh holds that chiropractic treatments for asthma, ear infections and other infant conditions are not evidence-based. Where medical claims to cure or treat do not appear to be supported by evidence, we should be able to criticise assertions robustly and the public should have access to these views.

English libel law, though, can serve to punish this kind of scrutiny and can severely curtail the right to free speech on a matter of public interest…Freedom to criticise and question in strong terms and without malice is the cornerstone of scientific argument and debate, whether in peer-reviewed journals, on websites or in newspapers, which have a right of reply for complainants. However, the libel laws and cases such as BCA v Singh have a chilling effect, which deters scientists, journalists and science writers from engaging in important disputes about the evidential base supporting products and practices. The libel laws discourage argument and debate and merely encourage the use of the courts to silence critics.

Indeed – and if even scientific enquiry can be curtailed in this way, where does that leave argument and debate about other matters of public interest? Even if you’re confident that your writing is truthful, non-malicious, and in the public interest, if your subject is wealthy or has access to friendly lawyers who can fire off letters on his or her behalf (as Donal Blaney did for Paul Staines against Tim Ireland, in typical Tory pseudo-libertarian style), then holding your ground can be a huge risk.

In the USA, there is a “public person” distinction, which protects critical scrutiny of anyone who chooses to enter a public controversy. That would be one very specific measure that could be taken.

2 Responses

  1. […] from the London High Court – and the alarming situation of scientists and science writers being threatened for making professional judgements. At the moment, if you are moderately wealthy or if you have […]

  2. […] him as “hostile” to responsible journalism in the public interest. Most notoriously, he has ruled that it is libellous to describe chiropractors as “bogus”, and Tom Bower’s […]

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