British Chiropractic Association drops shameful libel case against science writer who criticised them

April 15th, 2010 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, legal chill, libel | 20 Comments »

The BCA have dropped their case. It has not been good for them. It will now get worse. Singh has made it clear that he will pursue them for his costs: this will cost the BCA dearly, and it is money they can ill afford. I’m off to write about it for the Guardian but I thought you’d like to know, BBC and Times pieces below. People who sue people over criticisms of science are fools. The BCA statement, meanwhile, is typically vile. Especially the bit where they talk about being vindicated. Oh, and amusingly this is Chiropractic Awareness Week. Yes. Yes it is.

Science writer Simon Singh wins bitter libel battle
Case dropped against Simon Singh
British Chiropractors’ Association drops case against Simon Singh


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20 Responses



  1. Synchronium said,

    April 15, 2010 at 11:41 am

    That’s great news! Reckon he’ll get his money back?

  2. mazzawoo said,

    April 15, 2010 at 11:52 am

    BCA calls “The Honourable Mr Justice Eady, the UK’s most experienced defamation judge”. Why the most experienced? Nothing to do with London’s reputation as the libel capital of the world?

    Excellent news for Simon. So, if BCA pay all his costs, do I get the money I paid for my mug back? (kidding) ;)

  3. spindle said,

    April 15, 2010 at 12:30 pm

    Next step: Christian Voice-style, the BCA makes a big fuss when Singh attempts to recover costs, claiming that it is unfair that it should have to pay for the other side’s costs in a case it started.

  4. Mike W said,

    April 15, 2010 at 12:38 pm

    Is anyone tracking figures on enrolments for chiropractic courses, or other similar metrics, since this case was mounted?

  5. Ben Goldacre said,

    April 15, 2010 at 12:44 pm

    Libel Reform Press Release

    BCA drop libel case against Simon Singh

    The British Chiropractic Association has today dropped its libel case with science writer Simon Singh. This follows the Court of Appeal ruling on 1st April that Singh’s article on chiropractic was comment not fact.1

    Simon Singh has been fighting his case for two years and has spent more than £200,000. He will never recover all his costs. He said: “It still staggers me that the British Chiropractic Association and half the chiropractors in the UK were making unsubstantiated claims. It still baffles me that the BCA then dared to sue me for libel and put me through two years of hell before I was vindicated. And it still makes me angry that our libel laws not only tolerate but also encourage such ludicrous libel suits. English libel law is so intimidating, so expensive, so hostile to serious journalists that it has a chilling effect on all areas of debate, silencing scientists, journalists, bloggers, human rights activists and everyone else who dares to tackle serious matters of public interest. In the area of medicine alone, fear of libel means that good research is not always published because those with vested interests might sue, and bad research that should be withdrawn is not pulled because the authors might sue the journal, and in both cases it is the public that loses out because the truth is never exposed. My victory does not mean that our libel laws are okay, because I won despite the libel laws – we still have the most notoriously anti-free speech libel laws in the free world.”

    Simon Singh: “The good news is that all three main parties this week committed to a libel reform bill in the next Parliament. But libel reform has to be radical. Cutting costs by a half means that a trial will not cost £1 million but cost £500,000, but this is still extortionate. Costs need to be cut by a factor of 10 at least. Moreover the current libel law still means that libel tourists can sue in London on spurious grounds, big companies can still bully lone journalists, we still lack a robust public interest defence and we still have an unfair burden of proof on writers. It is important to remember that another libel case involving medicine continues – Dr Peter Wilmshurst is a consultant cardiologist who is being sued for libel for raising serious concerns about the data relating to a new heart device. If Dr Wilmshurst loses his case then he will be bankrupted. It is ridiculous that a respected researcher such as Dr Wilmshurst, someone who has devoted his life to medicine, should be put under such pressure just for speaking his mind. Our libel laws discourage doctors, scientists and journalists from speaking out. It is only when Peter has hopefully defended his libel case that I will be able to celebrate. It is only when English libel law has been reformed that I will be able enjoy today’s victory. Unless our libel laws change urgently and radically, I will not be the last journalist hauled through the libel courts and who will have to face financial disaster and two years of hell simply for raising an important and valid matter of public interest.”

    Simon Singh: “One of the good things to come out of the last two years is that the chiropractic profession has been put under intense scrutiny. One in four chiropractors in the UK is now being investigated for making allegedly misleading claims, the Advertising Standards Authority has ruled against many chiropractic claims and the British Chiropractic Association has removed many claims from its website. None of this would have happened if I had backed down and the BCA has successfully silenced my article.”

    Simon Singh: “The case is not quite over, because we still have to argue over costs. Having backed down and dropped the case, I expect the British Chiropractic Association to pay my legal bill of £200,000. I fully expect the BCA to argue that they should not pay all my costs, but I think it is the very least that they should do because this entire legal battle has been instigated by the BCA. I will never get back the two years that I have wasted on this case when I should have been writing a new book and I will never get back all the time I should have had with friends and family, which instead was replaced with continual stress, anxiety and ridiculously tedious legal documents. Fortunately the case has ended when my son Hari is only three weeks old, so I can now relax and enjoy being a father. My wife is a journalist and she been fully supportive throughout, and without her backing and the support of family, friends, scientists, bloggers and many others I suspect I would not have had the morale to keep fighting this case until the end.”

    Tracey Brown, Sense About Science, said: “We are very pleased Simon will not have to fight this case anymore. It is ludicrous that someone writing about an important subject like children’s health could be dragged through the courts for years and at such cost.

    However Simon’s case has shone a light into the dark corner of legal threats being used to silence academics, scientists, bloggers, writers and scientists unable to sacrifice 2 years and £200,000 to defend their words. The case for a statutory public interest defence is well and truly made.

    This is why we’re pleased to see cross party manifesto commitment to libel reform but we must continue to press for change that protects the public interest from legal bullies.”

    Singh’s solicitor Robert Dougans, Associate at Bryan Cave LLP, said: “The BCA has now served a Notice of Discontinuance upon us. This brings to an end their libel claim against Simon. All that now remains to be settled is how much of Simon’s legal costs he can recover from the BCA, and how much he will have to bear himself.

    However well this process goes, Simon is likely to be out of pocket by about £20,000. This – and two years of lost earnings, which he can never recover – is the price he has paid for writing an article criticising the BCA for making claims the Advertising Standards Agency has ruled can no longer be made. In the game of libel, even winning is costly and stressful.

    To have won this case for Simon is the proudest moment of my career, but if we had the libel laws we ought to have I would never have met Simon at all. Until we have a proper public interest defence scientists and writers are going to have to carry on making the unenviable choice of either shying away from hard-hitting debate, or paying through the nose for the privilege of defending it.”

    Jonathan Heawood, English PEN, said: “The appeal judges described the Singh trial as ‘a surprising consequence of laws designed to protect reputation’. Libel law is simply not fit for purpose. The question is not whether to reform the law, but when.”

    John Kampfner, CEO of Index on Censorship said: “We welcome the BCA’s decision to abandon this case, but this has cost Simon over £200,000. Any reforms will have to ensure that a case like Simon’s never happens again. We will maintain pressure on the major parties to keep their manifesto pledges and reform our archaic, unfair libel laws.”

    For more information on the Libel reform Campaign and for interviews with Simon Singh and Robert Dougans (07909 916875) please contact Síle Lane 020 7478 4380/ 07719 391814 slane@senseaboutscience.org.

    For more on the Libel Reform Campaign contact Mike Harris 07974 838468 mike@libelreform.org

    Notes to editors:

    1. Simon Singh was sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) because of an opinion piece he wrote in the Guardian in April 2008 on the lack of evidence for the claims some chiropractors make on treating certain childhood conditions including colic and asthma. The BCA did not take up the offered right to reply but sued Singh personally. Mr Justice Eady ruled in May 2009 that Singh’s piece was factual, Singh appealed and the appeal was allowed to stand in April 2010.

    More background to the case here: www.senseaboutscience.org.uk/freedebate and on Jack of Kent’s blog here: www.jackofkent.com

    2. The House of Commons’ Select Committee report on Press Standards, Privacy and Libel identified Singh v BCA as an important case likely to clarify the defence of “fair comment,” and said that the outcome would determine whether more measures to protect science writing were needed.

    3. The Coalition for Libel Reform is made up of English PEN, Index on Censorship and Sense About Science. English PEN and Index on Censorship launched their ‘Free Speech Is Not For Sale’ report in November 2009. It detailed the chilling effect of English libel law on freedom of expression in the UK and across the world. Following the case of the science writer Simon Singh being sued for libel for an article in the Guardian, Sense About Science’s campaign for scientific and academic freedom from libel threats attracted 20,000 supporters. They came together, in December 2009, as the Coalition for Libel Reform, to campaign for major reforms to the English law of libel. Their petition for reform of the libel laws to include a public interest defence for writers writing on important subjects has 50,000 signatures at www.libelreform.org.

    English PEN is a registered charity (number 1125610), with the object of promoting the human rights of writers, authors, editors, publishers and other persons similarly engaged throughout the world.

    Index on Censorship promotes the public understanding of freedom of expression through the Writers and Scholars Educational Trust (registered charity, number 325003)

    Sense About Science (www.senseaboutscience.org) is a UK charity, registered no. 1101114, that equips people to make sense of science and evidence. We respond to the misrepresentation of science and scientific evidence on issues that matter to society and work with scientists and civic groups to share the tools and insights of scientific reasoning.

  6. Kehaar said,

    April 15, 2010 at 1:05 pm

    Yeah, and John McVicar is one of the UK’s most experienced work-place security consultants.

    Personally, I hope this is the BCA’s Matthias Rath moment.

  7. Mart said,

    April 15, 2010 at 1:11 pm

    Which treatment do chiroquackters generally recommend for a gunshot wound to the foot?

  8. Polaris said,

    April 15, 2010 at 1:20 pm

    So now the article is definitely not libellous, will The Guardian do the decent thing and republish it in full?

  9. MrNick said,

    April 15, 2010 at 2:38 pm

    What great news. Can they afford to pay his costs?
    It would be really, really amusing if it bankrupted them.

    Nick

  10. Ross Burton said,

    April 15, 2010 at 4:07 pm

    A commenter on jdc325’s blog looked at the BCA accounts for 2008:

    jdc325.wordpress.com/2010/04/01/simon-singh-and-the-british-chiropractic-association/#comment-5762

  11. Davros said,

    April 15, 2010 at 4:22 pm

    This is excellent news. However, even though the BCA, by discontinuing the case, automatically becomes liable to pay his costs, it is a shame for Simon that because of the way the court assesses costs in litigation, even on a best case scenario he’s going to be out of pocket (the £20,000 shortfall referred to). Frankly he may end up being financially even worse off than that – I sincerely hope not. Nevertheless, the Court of Appeal decision was a significant and highly important one, which will hopefully lead the way to proper scientific comment and debate being taken forever out of the scope of libel laws. And thank goodness the BCA appear to have seen the writing on the wall and accepted the inevitable.

  12. Dr Aust said,

    April 15, 2010 at 5:18 pm

    Zeno previously did an analysis of the BCA’s finances here.

    I have a half-written post on the BCA finances and costs thing, and also on the way societies like the BCA are organised/governed. I’ll try and finish it tonight (or more likely tomorrow night).

    In the meantime (second plug in one comment – sorry, no shame) I have been musing on whether the BCA have been pinching my “news management” suggestions for their concession speech.

  13. Richard Bartholomew said,

    April 15, 2010 at 5:20 pm

    The BCA should have been obliged to place sufficient funds in special account before going to court, to be given the defendant as a matter of course should they lose. It’s outrageous Simon Singh should have to battle on just to break even (and that’s not including compensation for the months of work he’s had to put in).

  14. r085 said,

    April 15, 2010 at 6:11 pm

    I particularly like the final line of the mealy mouthed retraction from the BCA: “More media information from Carl Courtney … but no new information will be given.” As helpful as ever.

  15. Davros said,

    April 15, 2010 at 6:19 pm

    @Richard Bartholomew

    There is a mechanism in court cases, if you have good evidence that a claimant which is a company won’t be able to meet a costs award against it should it sue you and lose, to obtain an order requiring it to pay money into court along the lines you suggest. Hopefully the fact that (as far as we know) such an order wasn’t sought or made means it was considered and Simon’s legal team thought they would be good for the money. Let’s hope so.

  16. jdc said,

    April 15, 2010 at 6:56 pm

    @RossBurton – thanks for the link to my blogpost on Simon Singh and the BCA. I’ve now added a PDF of the full accounts at the bottom of the post.

  17. flydoc said,

    April 15, 2010 at 9:44 pm

    does anyone have a link to the original article?

  18. Bolly said,

    April 15, 2010 at 11:34 pm

    It’s here:

    www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/apr/19/controversiesinscience-health

  19. mikewhit said,

    April 16, 2010 at 9:00 am

    This – and two years of lost earnings, which he can never recover He could always try a civil case for loss of earnings – maybe the small claims court might be good for £5k ?

  20. Robert Carnegie said,

    April 18, 2010 at 3:12 am

    I assume that chiropractors were making a lot more money than Simon Singh is even when he’s full time gainfully employed. I reckon they can cover it.