Here’s a quick piece about libel that I bashed out on request for CiF, covers ground you’ll have read before but it’s always good to keep libel alive in peoples’ minds. I should also say, I think I was in a bit of a mopey mood when I emailed it from the rail replacement bus on Sunday, it’s obviously great that the Lib Dems support libel law reform.
Ben Goldacre, Monday 21 September 2009, guardian.co.uk
I’ve never tried to understand how political parties work – it’s never seemed like a worthwhile use of time – but the Liberal Democrats certainly gave us a friendly hearing in a fringe meeting at their conference yesterday. We also contributed some celebrity spice in the form of Richard Dawkins giving an amendment speech on the main platform, and after a successful vote, it is now a formal part of Lib Dem policy to move for a change in our libel laws.
The Americans, of course, are beating us to it, already discussing specific legislative changes to prevent British rulings from being enforcable outside of this country, and recognising that our law on defamation is an international menace. When we should be defending free speech, consumer protection and investigative reporting, instead we allowed a failing Icelandic bank to silence criticisms and warnings from a Danish newspaper: an Icelandic company, suing Danes, in London, for something they wrote and published in a foreign land. Even in the cartoon South Park, as Nick Cohen pointed out, when Tom Cruise was shouting at the press, he didn’t shout, “I’m gonna sue you,” he shouted, “I’m gonna sue you … in England.”
At our fringe meeting, Simon Singh spoke about his own case, which is now gratifyingly well known, even if he loses. Singh wrote a piece critical of chiropractors in the Guardian which included a single sentence in which he accidentally implied – one might argue, on a tenuous reading – that the British Chiropractic Association was deliberately misleading the public. This is a meaning Singh never intended, and so far the case has cost him £100,000 personally to defend.
This case is not important because chiropractors are important. Medicine is a sinister business, because it is possible – quite accidentally – to do great harm, even when you intend to do good. This is why all medical practices and ideas must be subjected to free and intense critical scrutiny, and that is a process you can see in any medical journal, at any hospital journal club and in any scientific conference, where academic presenters frequently find their claims being attacked in an extremely direct and uncompromising fashion. This is not incidental, and it is not merely tolerated: this is the core of medicine and science, but our draconian and unpredictable libel laws mean that even when people strive to be even-handed, these vital critical discussions are conducted in an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty.
Examples abound. Peter Wilmshurst is a medical academic who is currently defending himself against a charge of libel brought in London by a US company over comments he made to an US journalist working for a US publication about a US trial he was involved in. He expressed concerns about what he regards as inconsistencies in the data, and has raised the possibility that the medical technique being studied may not have been successful in some cases. He is defending himself single-handedly, risking his family’s home and livelihood in standing up to this company, after the Medical Defence Union declined to support him.
Readers of the Bad Science column may remember the case of Matthias Rath, a German vitamin pill salesman who unsuccessfully sued the Guardian and me personally over articles that criticised his full-page newspaper adverts in South Africa, in which he claimed that antiretroviral medications were a conspiracy by the pharmaceutical industry to kill people, and claimed that vitamin pills were the answer to the Aids epidemic. The case cost hundreds of thousands of pounds and 18 months to defend.
Individuals may be less able to defend themselves. Various websites have had their criticisms silenced by legal threats from Gillian McKeith, the millionaire holistic therapist. The Society of Homeopaths, when troubled by criticisms of their regulatory practices on Dr Andy Lewis’s Quackometer website, threatened his webhosts, who had no interest in mounting a defence and caved in immediately. Professor David Colquhoun’s website is an exemplary example of an academic scientist engaging directly with the public, unpaid, enthusing people interactively about everything science stands for. When he made instructive criticisms of the evidence for claims made by a herbal pill entrepreneur, UCL received libel threats, and Colquhoun was asked to remove his website from the university’s servers. I could go on.
But the examples spread beyond medicine. Individuals must be able to describe and criticise the actions of the powerful, because that is how free societies work, but as Nick Cohen pointed out today, wealthy men and wealthy institutions are able to use Britain as a way of stopping criticisms anywhere in the world:
You’d expect libel law to be about protecting good reputations but the British courts allow people who are borderline criminals, the classic case being Robert Maxwell. What we do in our own country should be up to us. It is a national disgrace that people in a Ukrainian newspaper should wake up to find that they are being sued in the UK over something they published in Kiev.
This is what we discussed at our fringe meeting, and this is also roughly what Dawkins said, in four-minute form, in his successful slot on the main stage. While I recognise my own inner world holds little interest for anyone else, I’ve been specifically asked by Cif to mention what I thought about the Lib Dems, and whether we welcome their support. Obviously it’s great that they passed this amendment. But in all honesty, however childish it sounds, I view politics as a tedious and impenetrable world of soul-destroying compromise populated by individuals too ambitious to speak clearly on issues of any importance, while generally defending the interests of the new wealthy friends they make while in power. If computer programming analogies are acceptable in a Cif post, our libel laws disproportionately benefit rich and powerful people, and I regard this as a feature, not a bug, so I have no faith that anyone in power will ever do anything about it.