by Adrian Giordani
The Editor of I, Science managed to get hold of Dr. Simon Singh to talk about the recent success in his libel case with the BCA (British Chiropractic Association) and his views on libel law and science communication.
What does the positive outcome of your libel case mean for science communication and libel law?
Had I lost, it would have put the fear of God into science journalists. The message would have been: “Look at what happened to Simon Singh when he stood by his article. He lost a lot of money and reputation. We’d better not dare stand up for our journalism.”
Because I’ve won, there are two outcomes. First, I hope that it will make journalists more confident about defending their writing.
Second, the three appeal court judges said that when a science journalist writes about science or medicine, the reason they’re raising an issue is because there’s a debate or different interpretations over the evidence. Therefore, when looking at the defences that a science writer has in a libel case, the default position should be ‘comment’, as opposed to ‘fact’, which is an easier defence, i.e., you have to show evidence to support your comment, as opposed to absolute proof to back up a fact.
Even though I won, the odds are still against the journalist. Today, Lord Lester – the Lib Dem peer – announced that he is going to present a libel reform bill. If the Government adopts Lord Lester’s bill we might have a new landscape for libel, one that’s less hostile and fairer to journalists.
Was Lord Lester’s bill a direct or indirect result of you winning your case?
Every ten years libel law crops up, but this year there was a perfect storm in favour of libel reform. The Common Select Committee came out with a report condemning our libel laws and Jack Straw had a working group look at libel reform. Charities ‘Index on Censorship’ and ‘English PEN’ published a report: Free Speech is not for Sale. ‘Sense About Science’ showed how libel affected me, Dr. Peter Wilmshurst, Dr. Ben Goldacre’s, Prof. Francisco Lacerda’s and Henrik Thomsen in our free speech cases. Moreover, the Americans have made it clear that they find our libel laws unacceptable. They have created legislation to block the impact of English libel law on American citizens.
The science aspect has been critical in terms of libel reform. Science progresses through open discussion, frank debate and robust criticism. If libel stifles scientific debate, then science struggles to move forward. Society in general progresses through open discussion – the current libel law hinders the progress of society.
Do you now feel it’s easier for science communicators to use ‘fair comment’ as a defence?
The ruling in my case is a small step forward. It’s not enough to change the landscape for science journalists. What’s needed is a ‘robust public interest defence’ which says if you’re writing about a matter of public interest, then the libel laws will cut you some slack. They have such a defence in America and Canada, which means that if you think there’s a public interest issue (e.g., relating to health), then the libel laws will protect you. As long as you can back up what you’re saying with some evidence. If the public doesn’t have access to those criticisms, then we are being deprived of the truth. That’s the other fundamental problem with our libel laws; the public only ever gets to hear half the story.
… And in your case, the public got to hear the other half of the story
My case was about chiropractic – I don’t think chiropractors should be treating children. Chiropractors probably think they should, although they seem to be changing their minds now. What is the public supposed to do if they have a child who has colic? I want the right to say, “I don’t think that’s a good idea to take your child to the chiropractor and these are the reasons why.” If I can’t say that then parents don’t have access to all the information.
What’s happened to chiropractic now that you’ve won? Are people more critical?
The odd thing is people already have been more critical. The British Chiropractic Association tried to block my criticism by suing me for libel. However, while my case was ongoing, bloggers began looking at chiropractic websites and now one in four chiropractors is now being investigated for allegedly misleading claims. There’s a lots of scrutiny being applied to chiropractic. I hope that the Chiropractic community is looking at what they did wrong. They need to go through deep reflection about what their responsibilities are.
Were there times you wished you were back in science, or was it important that you were unravelling a major flaw? How did you feel when you won?
I defended my article because I thought what I said was fair, accurate and important. There were periods when I felt incredibly depressed, because for 90% of the libel action I was against the ropes. It looked bad. It looked like I might lose; lose my case, lose £200,000, lose my reputation. The reason I kept on with my defence was because of the huge support I received; Felix and bloggers published articles, and sceptic groups around the world raised concerns about my case.
I now have a lot of people to thank. In fact, this morning I emailed the father of sceptic movement, James Randi, explaining that if he hadn’t backed me at a crucial stage, then I don’t know if I would’ve had the confidence to continue.
When I won, it was an extraordinary time because on March 20th I became a father. On April 1st the appeal court ruled in my favour. From being on the ropes for two years; I suddenly landed the knockout blow. On April 15th the BCA dropped its case. It’s hard to put into words… I wish I could put it into words. I’m a journalist, I’m a writer, I should be able to put it into words and I’m failing dismally.
As I, Science Editor I also take libel into consideration when reviewing articles. Where does the line need to be drawn?
At the moment the balance is on the side of the claimant. The balance needs to move so it’s fairer. The law of libel should require journalists to make statements that are fair and backed up by reasonable evidence, but it needs to stop the current situation whereby the entire burden is on the defendant.
We could reform the law by getting rid of libel for large companies. Currently, the message is; “for God’s sake don’t criticise large corporations’ because they’ll come after you”.
Companies wouldn’t have libel anymore in the situation I’m describing but they would have access to ‘malicious falsehood’. A company can sue a journalist for malicious falsehood if they think that a journalist has written about them unfairly and without reasonable evidence.
How did you utilise the internet during your case and are you now using it for libel law reform?
I haven’t used it much. When you’re a defendant in a case like this, you’re advised not to say anything, because everything you say will be open to legal scrutiny. For the first year and most of the second year I said very little in my case. However, everybody else started talking a great deal and the internet played a huge role. I read the blogs, Facebook groups and Twitter. These were all really important to me personally in keeping me sane. They were important in spreading the word that there’s something wrong with libel law generally. Once campaigning started, the online communities I mentioned were really important in getting people to back the campaign for libel reform. We now have 50,000 people signed up. If you haven’t’ signed up already, the place to visit is www.libelreform.org. Sign up; show that you support science, free speech and reform of the English libel laws.
So a ‘grassroots groundswell’ built up around you, organically growing through people connecting and speaking out online.
Absolutely, very much so.
How can the new coalition Government assist you to reform libel law?
Before the election all three parties manifestos’ were committed to libel reform. The way I looked at it was whoever wins this election should still have libel reform on the agenda. In point 10 of the Conservative / Lib Dem coalition agreement, they’ve specifically agreed to the idea of reviewing libel.
We interviewed Ben Goldacre for I, Science; he thinks scientists should be the predominant science communicators and that there should be more science editors instead.
That’s a very good point. For ten years I assumed that we needed more science communication and more science in the media. In fact, what we need is not more science, but more ‘good’ science in the media. I would not be bothered by less science coverage as long as it’s of high quality. We don’t need to cover all scientific research. What we need to cover are the major systematic reviews and research that really affect how the public think.
Are you planning any TV shows / books or will you go after other pseudoscientific claimants?
I’m going to spend the rest of the summer getting my life back in order and enjoy being a father. Towards the end of the summer I hope a new project will emerge. My career has taken lots of odd turns. When I was at Imperial I wanted to be a particle physicist. When I did my PHD in particle physics I moved into TV. When I was in TV I moved into writing books. When I was writing books I moved into broadcasting. From broadcasting I’ve moved into campaigning for libel reform. Anything could happen.
The full interview is also available on the I, Science website: http://dougal.union.ic.ac.uk/media/iscience.
IMAGES: Simon Singh