Libel Reform: A Conversation with Simon Singh

Simon Singh is a man who refus­es to be silenced.  In 2008, the British sci­ence writer pub­lished an arti­cle in The Guardian call­ing atten­tion to some of the wilder claims of the chi­ro­prac­tic indus­try.  A short time lat­er he found him­self sift­ing through 35 pages of legal doc­u­ments from a libel suit brought by the British Chi­ro­prac­tic Asso­ci­a­tion.  The law­suit specif­i­cal­ly named Singh, and not the news­pa­per.  As he told The Times of Lon­don recent­ly, the expe­ri­ence was “scary.”

Singh decid­ed to fight back. Two years lat­er, the British Chi­ro­prac­tic Asso­ci­a­tion has received a great deal more pub­lic scruti­ny than it bar­gained for, while Singh and his predica­ment have become the cause célèbre of a rapid­ly grow­ing move­ment to reform England’s noto­ri­ous libel law. London’s sta­tus as “Libel Cap­i­tal of the World “ has begun to teeter.

The chain of events began April 19, 2008, on the “Com­ment and Debate” page of The Guardian: “This is Chi­ro­prac­tic Aware­ness Week,” wrote Singh. “So let’s be aware.  How about some aware­ness that may pre­vent harm and help you make tru­ly informed choic­es?”  From there Singh went on to report that the founder of chi­ro­prac­tic ther­a­py, Daniel David Palmer, had claimed that “99% of all dis­eases are caused by dis­placed ver­te­brae.” Even now, Singh wrote, mod­ern chi­ro­prac­tors still hold some “quite wacky ideas.”  The law­suit revolves around a par­tic­u­lar pas­sage, quot­ed last week in a court doc­u­ment:

“The British Chi­ro­prac­tic Asso­ci­a­tion claims that their mem­bers can help treat chil­dren with col­ic, sleep­ing and feed­ing prob­lems, fre­quent ear infec­tions, asth­ma and pro­longed cry­ing, even though there is not a jot of evi­dence.  This orga­ni­za­tion is the respectable face of the chi­ro­prac­tic pro­fes­sion and yet it hap­pi­ly pro­motes bogus treat­ments.”

When the BCA object­ed, The Guardian offered to make space avail­able for a rebut­tal — if there was “a jot of evi­dence,” the BCA could present it.  Instead, the orga­ni­za­tion declined the offer and sued the writer.

At the time, Singh was pro­mot­ing his new book, Trick or Treat­ment: Alter­na­tive Med­i­cine on Tri­al, which he co-wrote with Edzard Ernst.  Sev­er­al of his ear­li­er books were inter­na­tion­al best­sellers, includ­ing Big Bang: The Ori­gin of the Uni­verse, and Fermat’s Last The­o­rem, which was pub­lished in Amer­i­ca as Fermat’s Enig­ma: The Epic Quest to Solve the World’s Great­est Math­e­mat­i­cal Prob­lem.  The com­mer­cial suc­cess of Singh’s books enabled him to absorb the enor­mous expense of fight­ing a case in the British libel courts.

Singh was dealt a seri­ous set­back in a pre­lim­i­nary hear­ing last May, when a judge ruled that the writer’s phrase “hap­pi­ly pro­motes bogus treat­ments” amount­ed to a fac­tu­al claim that the BCA was inten­tion­al­ly dis­hon­est – an inter­pre­ta­tion of mean­ing which Singh flat­ly denied.  Singh appealed the deci­sion, and last Thurs­day, in a rul­ing that may prove to be a water­shed, not only in Singh’s case but in the larg­er strug­gle for libel reform, the Eng­land and Wales Court of Appeal reversed the low­er court judge’s deci­sion and cleared the way for Singh to use a “fair com­ment” clause in his defense.

In the writ­ten deci­sion, Lord Chief Jus­tice Igor Judge com­ment­ed on the soci­etal impact of the BCA’s action.  “It is now near­ly two years since the pub­li­ca­tion of the offend­ing arti­cle,” Lord Judge wrote. “It seems unlike­ly that any­one would dare repeat the opin­ions expressed by Dr. Singh for fear of a writ.  Accord­ing­ly this lit­i­ga­tion has almost cer­tain­ly had a chill­ing effect on pub­lic debate which might oth­er­wise have assist­ed poten­tial patients to make informed choic­es about the pos­si­ble use of chi­ro­prac­tic.”

In the days fol­low­ing last week’s land­mark deci­sion, we talked with Singh by email.

OPEN CULTURE: Con­grat­u­la­tions on your vic­to­ry in the Court of Appeal.  How do you feel?

SIMON SINGH: I am delight­ed that the Court of Appeal has backed my inter­pre­ta­tion of my own arti­cle, name­ly that the British Chi­ro­prac­tic Asso­ci­a­tion is reck­less, but not dis­hon­est.  I will still have to defend my arti­cle at tri­al, but I will be defend­ing some­thing I meant to write, as opposed to an extreme accu­sa­tion that nev­er exist­ed in the first place.  Although this is a big step for­ward for me, there is still a long way to go on libel reform in the UK.  Eng­lish libel laws are the worst in the free world, and they need rad­i­cal reform so that oth­er sci­en­tists and jour­nal­ists do not find them­selves in my posi­tion next year.

OPEN CULTURE: What hap­pens next?

SIMON SINGH: I think the British Chi­ro­prac­tic Asso­ci­a­tion is in a dif­fi­cult posi­tion, but it has three choic­es.  First, it could take the case to tri­al, which is fine by me because I would rel­ish the oppor­tu­ni­ty to dis­cuss my arti­cle in a court­room.  Sec­ond, it could appeal last week’s deci­sion and go to the Supreme Court, but again this is fine by me because I would rel­ish the oppor­tu­ni­ty to dis­cuss my arti­cle in such an ele­vat­ed forum.  Third, it could aban­don the case, but the BCA would have to pay my costs before being allowed to walk away.

OPEN CULTURE: Those costs have been con­sid­er­able, haven’t they?

SIMON SINGH: I esti­mate that in my case both par­ties have run up bills of over £300,000, of which £200,000 has been spent estab­lish­ing the mean­ing.

OPEN CULTURE: The Appeal Court rul­ing quotes Mil­ton on the impris­on­ment of Galileo, and warns that under cur­rent law the court is invit­ed to become “an Orwellian min­istry of truth.”  Do you think the tide is turn­ing in favor of libel reform?

SIMON SINGH: I think the Appeal Court judges were send­ing a clear mes­sage that they are unhap­py with libel law, which should encour­age politi­cians to act rad­i­cal­ly on libel reform.  All the main par­ties seem keen to reform our libel laws, but this is not yet in the man­i­festos of the two main par­ties.  I think the pres­sure from cam­paign­ers, the pub­lic and the legal pro­fes­sion will ulti­mate­ly encour­age the next gov­ern­ment to reform libel, but we have to main­tain the pres­sure.

OPEN CULTURE: What makes Eng­lish libel law so oner­ous?

SIMON SINGH: There is so much wrong with Eng­lish libel law that it is hard to know where to start.  It is hor­ren­dous­ly expen­sive, which forces writ­ers to back down even if they are right, because they can­not afford to defend their writ­ing.  It has been esti­mat­ed that an Eng­lish libel tri­al can eas­i­ly cost over £1 mil­lion, and this is over 100 times more than the cost of an aver­age libel case in main­land Europe.  Sec­ond, there is the prob­lem that large cor­po­ra­tions can sue lone sci­en­tists, jour­nal­ists and blog­gers, which again forces them to back down because they are up against such pow­er­ful and rich orga­ni­za­tions.  Third, the bur­den of proof is uneven, because writ­ers are assumed to be guilty until proven inno­cent.  Fourth, there is no so-called robust pub­lic inter­est defense, name­ly some­thing that would pro­tect writ­ers com­ment­ing on impor­tant issues.  The law should encour­age such debate, not silence it.  Final­ly, there is a prob­lem of libel tourism, where­by over­seas com­pa­nies sue over­seas writ­ers in Lon­don because they know that Eng­lish libel law is hos­tile to jour­nal­ists.

OPEN CULTURE: Why should this con­cern some­one liv­ing away from the British Isles?

SIMON SINGH: The issue of libel tourism means that every­one in the world should be scared of the Eng­lish libel law.  If you write any­where in the world about a bil­lion­aire, then the Lon­don court can prob­a­bly claim juris­dic­tion because the mate­r­i­al can prob­a­bly be read in Eng­land over the inter­net and bil­lion­aires typ­i­cal­ly have busi­ness inter­ests in Eng­land so they can claim to have a rep­u­ta­tion in Eng­land.  There are many cas­es of libel tourism, such as Sau­di bil­lion­aires suing an Amer­i­can jour­nal­ist, a U.S. com­pa­ny suing a Dan­ish researcher, an Israeli tech­nol­o­gy com­pa­ny threat­en­ing to sue a paper writ­ten by a Swedish pro­fes­sor, a Tunisian man suing a Ger­man news­pa­per, an Ice­landic bank suing a Dan­ish news­pa­per, and so on – all these cas­es end­ed up in Lon­don, the libel cap­i­tal of the world.

OPEN CULTURE: Libel law affects all forms of jour­nal­ism and free expres­sion, but the British sci­en­tif­ic com­mu­ni­ty has been espe­cial­ly out­spo­ken on this issue.  Richard Dawkins for exam­ple gave a high-pro­file speech on the prob­lem.  Why are sci­en­tists, in par­tic­u­lar, so up in arms?

SIMON SINGH: I think sci­en­tists are at the fore­front of the cam­paign for libel reform because sci­ence can only progress through open dis­cus­sion and robust debate and crit­i­cism.  I think the pub­lic accepts that libel is impor­tant for pro­tect­ing the rep­u­ta­tion of indi­vid­u­als, but they now real­ize that there must be a prob­lem when libel blocks sci­en­tif­ic dis­cus­sion.  In addi­tion to my case, in the last year we have seen the sci­ence jour­nal­ist Ben Goldacre, the car­di­ol­o­gist Peter Wilmshurst, the Swedish lin­guist Pro­fes­sor Lac­er­da and the Dan­ish med­ical researcher Hen­rik Thom­sen all being sued for libel in Lon­don.  The libel laws block our right to dis­cuss sci­en­tif­ic ideas, but they also block the public’s right to hear these ideas.

OPEN CULTURE: With every­thing that has hap­pened, have you been able to car­ry on with your work as a writer?  Are you writ­ing a new book?

SIMON SINGH: As well as the legal costs, I have also lost out because my income has been seri­ous­ly dam­aged by my inabil­i­ty to write.  I should be writ­ing a new book now, but I can­not even sub­mit a book pro­pos­al because I don’t know if I would ever be able to deliv­er it.  Right now I am spend­ing the major­i­ty of my time on my own legal case, and devot­ing any spare time to the cam­paign for libel reform.

OPEN CULTURE: Are you work­ing with any orga­ni­za­tions to bring about reform?

SIMON SINGH: I am work­ing close­ly with three char­i­ties (Sense About Sci­ence, Eng­lish PEN and Index on Cen­sor­ship), who have formed the Libel Reform Coali­tion.  We have a peti­tion for libel reform and we wel­come sig­na­to­ries from around the world, because Eng­lish libel law affects writ­ers all over the globe.  I hope that read­ers will add their names to the peti­tion at www.libelreform.org/sign — I have spent over a mil­lion min­utes of my life defend­ing my arti­cle and my right to free speech, so I hope read­ers will take one minute to show their sup­port.

This arti­cle was con­tributed by Mike Springer, a jour­nal­ist in Cam­bridge, Mass­a­chu­setts.

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