Friday, 4 September 2009

Defending free speech - keep libel laws out of science: a Liberal Democrat conference fringe event

The need for wholesale reform of libel law in England and Wales has never been more acute; given current legislation the British Chiropractic Association has attempted to silence science writer Simon Singh and his measured criticism of their widespread claims of efficacy, and Simon is far from alone in being sued for libel for debating the scientific merit of either alternative medicine or mainstream pharmaceuticals - just think back to Ben Goldacre and The Guardian succesfully defending themselves against a millionaire vitamin pill salesman, or to the recent case against Peter Milmshurst brought by the American corporation NMT Medical.

In order for libel law to be reformed, however, lawmakers need to be brought into the fold, committing themselves to an overhaul of the current legislation; last week in Bournemouth the Liberal Democrats made just such a commitment, accepting proposals to reform libel law to safeguard free expression and debtate - here's how.

As I blogged about over on libdemvoice, I organised a fringe event relating to this urgent issue - you can watch the video below - apologies for the necessarily amateur quality, I am after all an amateur!! (I also have an audio file if you're interested, blogger/blogspot software doesn't seem to like it though so I can't upload it...)

Sile Lane from senseaboutscience opened the meeting and invited Simon and Ben to share their experiences of being sued for libel, which they did with clarity and honesty - it can't be easy for either to speak of their battles, which in Ben's case ended successfully but which continue for Simon, costing him time and money - £100k so far, with the prospect of more bills to come and with the knowledge that libel defendants hardly ever recoup all their costs even when they win. Simon spoke of how his investigation into chiropractic, as part of his book on alternative medicine, came to symbolise not only how a lack of evidence is no barrier to the extravagant claims made by alternative therapists, but how those with so much at stake react to criticism not by debating, nor by counter-arguments, but by resorting to suing for libel, leaving the dissenter in question with a stark choice - retract the criticism (no matter how valid), or fight on through years of legal wranglings.

Defending free speech - keep libel laws out of science, a Liberal Democrat fringe event from prateek buch on Vimeo.

This adverse reaction to criticism, this defensive attempt to silence critics using libel law,is completely antithetical to the core prinicples of scientific enquiry - as Ben told the delegates, not only does science approve of critical thought, it positively thrives on it, with eminent Professors often cut down to size by PhD students at academic meetings. Resorting to libel action, knowing that the very act of issuing a writ can silence even the most convincing and measured criticism, is nothing short of cowardly - as a Professor being sued by chiropractors in a separate case famously said, "let's hear your evidence, not your legal muscle."

Of course it's not only the high-profile cases that make it to court that demosntrate just how effective our current libel laws are at silencing debate - hundreds of articles appear in lifestyle magazines and Sunday Supplements advocating a plethora of unproven and baseless treatments for all sorts of conditions, but articles critical of such practices often don't even make it into the public realm for fear of triggering legal action; hence Ben's remark that the libel laws of this country are now 'a danger to public health,' as they leave the public with an impression that many such treatments are legitimate and effective when in fact they are often no better than placebo (at best) and sometimes downright damaging (at worst).

Of course the libel laws aren't just used to suppress scientific debate, as political journalist Nick Cohen explained. This phenomenon of 'libel tourism' makes London a plaintiff's paradise, the libel capital of the world where men (and it's usually men) of dubious repute sue anyone that dares criticise them in public, knowing that arrangements such as no win, no fee and the presumption of defamation will more often than not see them win. Nick spoke of countless cases, some well-publicised and others not, which are shameful examples of how the freedom of expression is sacrificed to the vested interests of the monied and the powerful; he also put forward an interesting theory that the bias towards the plaintiff is a relic of Britain's colonial and feudal past, where it was deemed heretic to criticise those high up in society and the law therefore assumed that comments claimed to be defamatory were in fact so, ipso facto. He contrasted this to the libel law of the USA, a nation founded on the principle of free expression, where the complainant has to "prove that what was written was not only untrue but published maliciously and recklessly." Infinitely fairer than the law we currently have in England and Wales.

And it was on this point of exactly how the law can be reformed that we heard from Evan Harris MP, who spoke about the need for legislation to reflect the centrality of free debate not only to science and medicine but to all spheres.

Going beyond the conference fringe, Evan and I put together an amendment to a civil liberties policy motion debated at conference, which was proposed by none other than Professor Richard Dawkins. Prof. Dawkins was given special leave to address conference despite not being a party member (he just happens to live in Evan Harris' constituency and votes Lib Dem at every election), and he eloquently proposed the amendment which endorsed the reform of libel law to
ensure that a better balance is provided between free speech, responsible journalism, scientific discourse and the public interest on the one hand and powerful corporations, wealthy individuals and vested interests on the other.
Prof. Dawkins (in a speech you can watch here or read a version of here) brought Simon and Ben's cases to the attention of conference, emphasising how unfair the current libel laws are and how, in science and medicine in particular, open debate is not just a matter of principle - open discussion of ideas and criticism of accepted practices are not just tolerated, they're absolutely central to how progress is made. In a rousing speech, Prof. Dawkins urged conference to amend the motion on civil liberties with a commitment to reform libel law, particularly as
if Singh loses, it would have major implications on the freedom of scientists, researchers and other commentators to engage in robust criticism of scientific, and pseudoscientific, work.
Carried by a unanimous vote, the amendment was given also strong support by Lib Dem shadow justice minister David Howarth, whose legal team is now looking into specific areas of libel law that need reforming and at potential ways in which the best aspects of libel law in other countries can be applied here.

This policy amendment has attracted quite some support in all quarters of the media (all the more so for Prof. Dawkins' support no doubt, for which Evan Harris is to be thanked!), both old (institutions as far apart on the political specturm as The Telegraph, The Guardian, The Times and the BBC carried the story) and new (the quackometer blog and amongst others). Somewhat unsurprising perhaps given that journalists themselves are often victim of the chilling effect of legal action, actual or threatened - nonetheless the campaign for reform gathers momentum, and those who are interested in how Simon's case in particular and the battle to reform the libel laws proceeds should look out for developments at Jack of Kent's excellent blog, at, or of course here.

I'll finish with something of a response to Ben Goldacre's excellent write-up of the fringe event he spoke at, which you can find over at The Guardian's Comment is Free blog. Ben, I know that for some folk politics inspires nothing but skepticism, and I know that this is often rightly so. I know also that no matter what stance the Liberal Democrats may take on an issue, we (and I say this as a member but in a personal capacity...) are unlikely to form a majority government just yet so our policy positions may not immediately translate into a change in the law. (And I know you were on a rail replacement bus when you submitted the story, which no doubt explains in part the tone of what you wrote!). But Ben, one thing's for certain - the stance you've taken against the unfair, unjust and illiberal libel laws of England and Wales, the stance that supports Simon in his quest for justice and that you rightly believe is of paramount importance from the public health perspective - this stance will only lead to a change in the law with the support of the public at large and more importantly of Parliamentarians. The more of the latter we recruit to the cause the greater the publicity we generate amongst the former, and the greater the momentum for change to occur - so hang on in there Ben, because whether or not the law actually changes, we musn't rest until we've campaigned our hearts out as it's quite simply the right thing to do.

1 comment:

rachit said...

Serious stuff.
As a science graduate now studying law this is a particularly pertinent issue for me. It seems that the case for keeping libel laws out of science (or at least from restraining scientific journalism to the degree they blatantly do) is stone cold. The issue for me is finding a way to maintain (introduce?) legal justice in reforming the whole of libel law. Reshaping the law for science journalism in a way that doesn't allow the rest of the journalist world to print what that want to is a challenge that needs concrete proposals.
All to be done for the next post, ok? ;-)