Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Dr. Peter Wilmshurst faces second libel suit as NMT escalates its libel action against him

Cardiologist Dr. Peter Wilmshurst will be well-known to readers who are engaged with the movement to reform English and Welsh libel laws - Peter was sued nearly three years ago by the medical device manufacturers NMT, over comments made to an American website regarding a clinical trial of an NMT product and its effects on migraine patients.

As the libel reform campaign has made clear, this represents an unacceptable abuse of English libel law to silence critical debate that is being presented on scientific terms - and disputes regarding the scientific merits or otherwise of drugs, therapies and devices ought to be conducted through lab research, academic conferences and peer-reviewed publications, not through expensive and intrusive legal wrangling in the high court.

It's now emerged that NMT is threatening to sue Dr. Wilmshurst for a second time, this time over comments he made in a pre-recorded piece for the Today Programme on the chilling effects of England’s libel laws on scientific and medical discussions. The interview was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 27th November 2009.

Made just weeks before Dr. Wilmshurst's original case was due to appear in court, this new threat compounds the legal chill cast upon Dr. Wilmshurst and his ability to raise concerns over NMT's medical device in public - and demonstrates that despite significant progress made by the Coalition government in seeking to address libel reform, without root-and-branch reform the current libel laws remain a significant barrier to the dissemination of scientific ideas and the communication of medical information to doctors and patients.

The new threat of libel action drew strong criticism from activists seeking to defend free speech. Tracey Brown, Managing Director of Sense About Science and part of the libel reform campaign said:
We should be very grateful that Peter has been willing to fight on to defend the importance of open discussions in medicine. But we should be very worried about the many cases where people have no chance of standing up to the threats of organisations with legal and financial muscle and have no choice but to fall silent

Jonathan Heawood, Director of English PEN, said:
It seems odd to be suing someone now for comments they made almost a year ago. It's called the Today Programme because it's topical. Peter Wilmshurst went onto the programme to discuss the original libel action which NMT brought against him. At this rate, the only option for Peter Wilmshurst appears to be total silence on the subject - which would go against his public spirit and his integrity as a scientist

Mark Lewis, solicitor for Dr Wilmshurst said:
There is something wrong with a system where it is cheaper to let someone die than to speak out about what might not make them better

Jonathan and Mark's comments are particularly telling - if topical items cannot be discussed; if medically relevant information cannot be disseminated; if the scientific discourse is shut down - all for fear of the libel sledgehammer slamming down on your livelihood, how can we claim to live in a civilised democracy that nurtures evidence-based public debate?

Peter's fight to defend his comments, and more importantly his right to make such comments - and that of so many others - continues, and we can only wish him all the best as he stands up for free speech.


Anonymous said...

I wonder if NMT has considered the negative publicity it will receive from appearing to try to silence its critics? I hadn't even heard of NMT before this debacle. Now I wouldn't touch their products with a 10 foot barge pole.

Anonymous said...

But what was that Dr Peter Wilmshurst actually said that brought about the suit?

It is hard to form an opinion on this matter without knowing exactly what Dr Wilmshurst said.

teekblog said...

@Anonymous 1 - libel actions and super-injunctions are more likely than not to backfire if they're ill-conceived, just look at the chaos that the British Chiropractic Assoc is in following its disastrous action against Simon Singh!

@Anonymous 2 - not sure what Peter said as can't find transcript, but this may shed some light on the whole story...

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