Ben Goldacre, The Guardian, Monday 19 July 2010
What do you do, as a campaigner for libel reform, when a litigious millionaire calls you a liar? This ethical quandary was presented to me last week when twitter account of Gillian McKeith – or to give her full medical title, “Gillian McKeith” – called my book “lies”.
Now, firstly, there is little doubt that this is actionable, and probably undefendable. “Lies”, I can tell you from personal experience, is one word you can never use in England: even if you can show that someone was obviously wrong, even if you can show that they probably knew they were wrong, you still need to show that they deliberately distorted the truth, and that’s almost always impossible, without direct access to their thoughts. They might just have been mistaken, after all. Or sloppy. Or stupid.
Musical accompaniment written and performed by Doghorse.
So I have an amusingly strong case against the litigious millionaire. And I have a reasonably good reputation for honesty to defend. And although I believe libel laws stifle debate in science at great risk to public health, there’s no issue of science here.
But I’ve always believed that in most cases a simple correction, with the same prominence as the initial libel, should be sufficient. That’s why I contacted @gillianmckeith, firstly to explain that I’d be happy to debate my concerns about her work, and secondly, to make a simple request: could she please just tweet “Bad Science by Ben Goldacre is not lies”. That would be fine with me.
But by now all hell had broken loose. @gillianmckeith’s twitter feed was filled with the abuse of a random passing twitterer, and long, detailed tweets from McKeith explaining how her PhD from a non-accredited correspondence course college was entirely valid. Then they all disappeared. Then the tone shifted: instead of first person stuff about Gillian’s life, lots of third person PR tweets appeared. Then they disappeared. Then, as over 1,000 people were tweeting about her, making it the top trending topic on Twitter, @gillianmckeith announced “do you really believe this is real twitter site for the GM?”
Yes, replied the geeks. Well, the twitter account @gillianmckeith is linked to from gillianmckeith.info, explained some. Then that link was deleted. But, explained others, only half-deleted. If you look at the “source code” for the page, the link is still there, just temporarily inactivated. And that twitter account is still linked from gillianmckeith.tv, Gillian’s youtube page, and in fact her whole empire. Yes, yes we really do believe this is the real twitter site for the real Gillian McKeith. If you’re going to play silly buggers online, at least do it competently. And really, very seriously, don’t call investigative journalists liars. You never know: we might sue too.
Sorry for no images, I’m having a nice time in a field. There is an excellent account of the incompetent and integrity-torpedoing attempts to cover up for this, and records of the original embarrassing posts, at legal blog JackOfKent, and lots of other excellent blogs:
I contacted Gillian McKeith last week to ask when she was posting the correction on Twitter. She has not yet replied. We shall see what happens next.
No dreary libel of Dr McKeith in the comments please, I’m not interested.