Media Law Prof Blog

Editor: Christine A. Corcos
Louisiana State Univ.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Media Campaign From Sense About Science Aimed At Changing British Libel Laws

Science journalists and others in the media have begun a massive international campaign to pressure British MPs to modify the libel laws in the wake of the Simon Singh defamation ruling. Mr. Singh lost an important preliminary ruling over an article he wrote criticizing chiropractic treatment when Mr. Justice Eady determined that "wording used by Singh implied that the BCA was being consciously dishonest. Singh has denied that he intended any such meaning."

Mr. Singh is appealing the ruling. Meanwhile, a number of influential reporters and writers are mounting a campaign called "Keep Libel Laws Out of Science" and are sending an open letter to Members of Parliament. The letter reads:

The law has no place in scientific disputes We the undersigned believe that it is inappropriate to use the English libel laws to silence critical discussion of medical practice and scientific evidence.

The British Chiropractic Association has sued Simon Singh for libel. The scientific community would have preferred that it had defended its position about chiropractic for various children's ailments through an open discussion of the peer reviewed medical literature or through debate in the mainstream media.

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. It is already widely recognised that the law is weighted heavily against writers: among other things, the costs are so high that few defendants can afford to make their case. The ease and success of bringing cases under the English law, including against overseas writers, has led to London being viewed as the "libel capital" of the world.

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.

The English law of libel has no place in scientific disputes about evidence; the BCA should discuss the evidence outside of a courtroom. Moreover, the BCA v Singh case shows a wider problem: we urgently need a full review of the way that English libel law affects discussions about scientific and medical evidence.

Among the early signers from the media and publishing are

David Aaronovitch Columnist, The Times and Author

Monica Ali Writer and Member, English PEN

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown Journalist and Columnist

Julian Baggini Journalist and Writer

Wendy Barnaby Editor, People and Society

Penelope Bennett Writer and Member, English PEN

David Bodanis Journalist and Author

Rosie Boycott Former Editor, The Independent and Independent on Sunday

Geoffrey Carr Science Editor, The Economist

Marcus Chown Author, Journalist and cosmology consultant to New Scientist

Duncan Campbell Journalist and Author

Dr Philip Campbell Editor-in-Chief, Nature

Nick Cohen Columnist, The Observer

Clive Cookson Science Editor, Financial Times

Amanda Craig Writer and Member, English PEN

Nick Davies Journalist and Author of Flat Earth News

Blain Fairman Writer and Member, English PEN

Kendrick Frazier Editor, Skeptical Inquirer

Martin Gardner Author, Former Scientific American columnist and prominent skeptic

James Gleick Science Writer and Journalist

Dr Ben Goldacre Writer, Broadcaster and Medical Doctor

David Hare Writer and Member, English PEN

Nigel Hawkes Director, Straight Statistics and Former Health Editor, The Times

Mark Henderson Science Editor, The Times

Roger Highfield Editor, New Scientist

Eva Hoffman Writer and Member, English PEN

Dr Richard Horton FRS FMedSci Editor, The Lancet

Alok Jha Science and Environment Correspondent, The Guardian

Rohit Jaggi Columnist, Financial Times

Frances Jessup Writer and Member, English PEN

Barry Karr Skeptical Inquirer and Committee for Skeptical Inquiry

Dr Karl Kruszelnicki Author, Broadcaster and Scientist

Hari Kunzru Writer and Member, English PEN

Sam Lister Health Editor, The Times

Brenda Maddox Journalist and Biographer

Kenan Malik Journalist and Author

Marilyn Malin Writer and Member, English PEN

Naomi May Writer and Member, English PEN

Dr Margaret McCartney Columnist, Financial Times and GP

Caspar Melville Editor, New Humanist magazine and Chief Executive, The Rationalist Association

Robin McKie Science Correspondent, The Observer

George Monbiot Journalist

Andrew Mueller Journalist and Author

Beverley Naidoo Writer and Member, English PEN

Steven Novella Editor, Science-Based Medicine; Director of General Neurology, Yale University School of Medicine and Author

Vivienne Parry Science Writer and Broadcaster

John Rennie Former Editor-in-Chief, Scientific American

Nick Ross Journalist and Broadcaster

Ian Sample Science Correspondent, The Guardian

Anne Sebba Columnist, Financial Times

Ariane Sherine Comedy, Writer and Journalist

Michael Shermer Publisher, Skeptic Magazine; Columnist Scientific American and Author of Why People Believe Weird Things

Rebecca Smith Medical Editor, The Daily Telegraph

Andrew Sugden Deputy Editor, Science

Mike Swain Science Correspondent, The Daily Mirror

Bill Thompson Technology Journalist

Margaret Wertheim Science Writer

Among the early signers from law are

David Allen Green Solicitor

Jonathan Morgan Fellow in Law, University of Cambridge

Baroness Helena Kennedy QC Barrister and Labour Member of the House of Lords

Here is a link to the statement for individuals who wish to sign.

For more about the campaign and related issues go to the Sense About Science site here.

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