Respectful Insolence

Today is a great day.

Today, British science writer Simon Singh accomplished something I would never have believed possible, given British libel laws and a very bad ruling by Sir David Eady, the presiding judge, a ruling characterized as astonishingly illiberal. Despite the long odds, Singh appealed the ruling and actually won.

As a result, the British Chiropractic Association has thrown in the towel on its bogus libel action against Singh:

Having carefully considered its position in the light of the judgment of the Court of Appeal (1st April 2010), the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) has decided to discontinue its libel action against Simon Singh.

As previously made clear, the BCA brought the claim because it considered that Simon Singh had made a serious allegation against its reputation, namely, that the BCA promoted treatments that it knew to be “bogus”. The Honourable Mr Justice Eady, the UK’s most experienced defamation judge, agreed with the BCA’s interpretation of the article and ruled that it made a serious factual allegation of dishonesty.

The Court of Appeal, in its recent judgment, has taken a very different view of the article. On its interpretation, the article did not make any factual allegation against the BCA at all; it was no more than an expression of ‘honest opinion’ by Simon Singh. While it still considers that the article was defamatory of the BCA, the decision provides Dr Singh with a defence such that the BCA has taken the view that it should withdraw to avoid further legal costs being incurred by either side.


If you had asked me last summer if I thought this outcome is likely, I would have said no. In fact, I did say no. I’m now happily proven mistaken. Even better, the Singh case has brought the ridiculously plaintiff-friendly British libel laws into the harsh light of public scrutiny, sparking a campaign larger and more sustained than any before to reform the law to protect free speech better and to prevent frivolous libel suits from silencing legitimate scientific criticism, particularly of various forms of pseudoscience and quackery. Even better, the BCA shot itself in the foot with its libel suit, which led not just to the campaign to reform British libel laws but to intense scrutiny of chiropractors and the claims they make, with bloggers and activists perusing the websites of British chiropractors for unsupportable claims and then filing complaints about them.

Still, at the moment it is hard not to wonder whether Singh’s victory is a Pyrrhic one. Singh is out more than £200,000. Fortunately, he is going after the BCA to pay his legal costs. Quoth Singh:

Having backed down and dropped the case, I expect the British Chiropractic Association to pay my legal bill of 200,000 pounds. I fully expect the BCA to argue that they should not pay all my costs, but I think it is the very least that they should do because this entire legal battle has been instigated by the BCA. I will never get back the two years that I have wasted on this case when I should have been writing a new book and I will never get back all the time I should have had with friends and family, which instead was replaced with continual stress, anxiety and ridiculously tedious legal documents. Fortunately the case has ended when my son Hari is only three weeks old, so I can now relax and enjoy being a father. My wife is a journalist and she been fully supportive throughout, and without her backing and the support of family, friends, scientists, bloggers and many others I suspect I would not have had the morale to keep fighting this case until the end.”

Here’s hoping Singh gets every penny.

We should also remember that, despite Singh’s victory, the ridiculously plaintiff-friendly British libel laws remain. These are the same laws that ensnared American Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt, when David Irving decided to use them to sue her for libel for referring to him as a Holocaust denier. These are the same laws that still may bankrupt Dr. Peter Wilmhurst, as Singh also points out:

Moreover the current libel law still means that libel tourists can sue in London on spurious grounds, big companies can still bully lone journalists, we still lack a robust public interest defence and we still have an unfair burden of proof on writers. It is important to remember that another libel case involving medicine continues – Dr Peter Wilmshurst is a consultant cardiologist who is being sued for libel for raising serious concerns about the data relating to a new heart device. If Dr Wilmshurst loses his case then he will be bankrupted. It is ridiculous that a respected researcher such as Dr Wilmshurst, someone who has devoted his life to medicine, should be put under such pressure just for speaking his mind. Our libel laws discourage doctors, scientists and journalists from speaking out. It is only when Peter has hopefully defended his libel case that I will be able to celebrate. It is only when English libel law has been reformed that I will be able enjoy today’s victory. Unless our libel laws change urgently and radically, I will not be the last journalist hauled through the libel courts and who will have to face financial disaster and two years of hell simply for raising an important and valid matter of public interest.”

Until British libel law is reformed–really radically reformed–no journalist or writer anywhere is entirely safe, as plaintiffs can claim British jurisdiction if anyone in the U.K. can read an article on the Internet. What I worry about is that, with Singh’s case dropped by the BCA, momentum towards real libel reform in the U.K. will stall and go the way of so many previous efforts and that there will be more Simon Singhs, Deborah Lipstadts, and Peter Wilmhursts.

Comments

  1. #1 jim
    April 15, 2010

    Simon Singh is not from Madras, but he nevertheless has balls made of brass. It’s probably unwise to stand behind him in a storm.

  2. #2 MikeMa
    April 15, 2010

    Excellent news. Good for Simon and eventually (maybe) good for Britain’s libel laws.

  3. #3 Paul Browne
    April 15, 2010

    Great news for Simon! I’ll second your hope that he gets back every penny from the BCA.

    As to libel reform I think that the best we can hope for is a hung parliament with a strong showing by the Liberal Democrats (not that unlikely an outcome at the moment), who and then make it a condition of any coalition agreement.

  4. #4 SimonG
    April 15, 2010

    I think law reform is actually fairly likely. All three major parties have recognised the need for it.
    It might still take a while, but it will happen.

  5. #5 Anne
    April 15, 2010

    Quoting from the appellate opinion in Dr. Singh’s case:

    “Scientific controversies must be settled by the methods of science rather than by the methods of litigation. … More papers, more discussion, better data, and more satisfactory models – not larger awards of damages – mark the path towards superior understanding of the world around us.” (Citing Underwager v. Salter, 22 Fed.3d 730 (7th Cir. 1994).)

    British libel law enters the 21st century.

  6. #6 Sam C
    April 15, 2010

    The quacks’ statement is mildly amusing. They describe Eady as “the UK’s most experienced defamation judge”. Maybe, but also one of the most criticised by the Supreme Court in previous rulings, some of whose over-rulings can be summarised as “WTF was that fool Eady thinking of?”.

    But as I understand their claim, which Eady’s nonsensical ruling supported and the Supreme Court rejected, the BCA say they (the BCA) are too stupid to realise that chiropractic is bogus, so they are honestly stupid in promoting bogus treatments rather than dishonestly stupid. My opinion? I find it difficult to believe that anybody that stupid could be honest!

    Apparently, according to their statement, m’learned friends advised the BCA that “there are strong grounds for appeal” but they have generously decided that “now the time is ripe for the matter to draw to a close”. Yes please, let the scam of chiropractic draw to a close and the BCA can dissolve.

    Without disagreeing on the general libel reform issue, isn’t one of the most egregious failings of the legal system in this and other cases that it has taken so long for the matter to come to a close? And it would have taken longer if the BCA had persisted. Why can’t both parties be given one month to construct their best arguments, then dceide the whole thing in a couple of days? What have they all been doing in the past two years? Chiropractic was nonsense two years ago, is nonsense now, its treatments (for anything other than back pain) were bogus then, are bogus now.

  7. #7 DLC
    April 15, 2010

    I’m glad to see Singh exonerated.
    The principle of free speech is upheld again.

  8. #8 Pieter B
    April 15, 2010

    It’s always nice to start the day with good news. Thanks, Orac.

  9. #9 Old Rockin' Dave
    April 15, 2010

    It’s too bad that Simon Singh can’t countersue for barratry.

  10. #10 G.Shelley
    April 15, 2010

    This is excellent, though it would of course have been nice to see them destroy themselves totally, I wouldn’t want to have to sacrifice Simon Singh to achieve this. It was always likely once Justice Eadie’s perverse original ruling had been overturned (and I feel confident in labelling it perverse, as not only did Singh explain himself in the following paragraph, which made it quite clear that it was his opinion and that bogus simply meant they do not work, but even if he had not emphasised that, it would still have been a reasonable interpretation).
    I am at a loss to see how the BCA reconcile two paragraphs of their statement, namely

    As previously made clear, the BCA brought the claim because it considered that Simon Singh had made a serious allegation against its reputation, namely, that the BCA promoted treatments that it knew to be “bogus”.

    and

    As those who have followed the publicity surrounding this case will know, Simon Singh has said publicly that he had never intended to suggest that the BCA had been dishonest. The BCA accepts this statement, which goes some way to vindicating its position.

    If they had accepted that statement, then surely there would have been no lawsuit

  11. #11 Calli Arcale
    April 15, 2010

    WOOT!!! Reason prevails! This is excellent news!

  12. #12 Greg Fish
    April 15, 2010

    Not only should the BCA pay back every penny to Singh, they should also cover his lost wages for two years. What they did was a) astonishingly stupid and b) unjustifiably underhanded and low. Hopefully, with the loud and growing libel law reform movement in the UK, every libel tourist, quack, crank and denier who ever used these backwards laws or planned to use them to silence or destroy any and all criticism will have the BCA to blame for taking their bludgeon away…

  13. #13 Dr Aust
    April 15, 2010

    G. Shelley:

    Absolutely, the BCA could have been here nigh-on two years and (likely) $ 400K ago.

    Of course, the statement is a piece of PR. It was wholly predictable they would say precisely this if they went for the “Exit Strategy”.

    Most folk in the UK sceptical blogosphere believe the lawsuit was about sticking Singh’s head on a pole “as a warning to the others”. In which the BCA have not only failed, but:

    i) blown a serious stack of their cash;

    ii) made themselves a public laughing stock

    iii) given everybody a good look at the weird stuff they believe, and the lack of evidence for much of it;

    iv) prompted a judicial ruling that wil make it a lot harder for other people to sue those who criticise “bizarre readings of evidence”; and

    v) set off a libel reform movement which has a real chance of changing the libel law in the UK for the better.

    So a real Big Win for the Unreality Crew there…

  14. #14 Matthew Cline
    April 15, 2010

    But as I understand their claim, which Eady’s nonsensical ruling supported and the Supreme Court rejected, the BCA say they (the BCA) are too stupid to realise that chiropractic is bogus, so they are honestly stupid in promoting bogus treatments rather than dishonestly stupid.

    Wasn’t that Singh’s defense, rather than the BCA’s? That is, that the he wasn’t accusing chiropractics of offering treatments they knew to be infective, since they actually believed the treatments worked?

  15. #15 DT
    April 15, 2010

    An intrepid young journo named Singh,
    Once said a quite rational thing:
    If you call out some quacks
    For twisting some backs,
    Then prepare for the trouble they’ll bring.

    If you say that they cannot cure colic,
    Or cure a disease metabolic,
    By cracking a neck
    With no evidence check,
    Their reaction may be hyperbolic.

    If you say that there isn’t a jot
    Of substance to subject a tot
    Who has asthma, or pain
    To a treatment insane,
    Then things are bound to get hot.

    If you imply that they may have conned
    Their patients, as though with a wand
    waved over their spines
    Against all guidelines,
    It is likely they’ll try and respond.

    No doubt you’ll be served with a writ
    To appear in High Court to admit,
    That you have not opined,
    but have sorely maligned
    those purveyors of utter bullshit.

    But if you stick firm to your guns,
    And wait to see how justice runs,
    You could be surprised
    and find they’re despised
    By judiciary’s most senior ones.

    Don’t imagine that you’ve won the war,
    Because others have been here before,
    And will be so again,
    In both anguish and pain,
    Under libel laws we all abhor.

  16. #16 zackoz
    April 15, 2010

    At last, someone to rival Cuttlefish!

  17. #17 Rogue Medic
    April 16, 2010

    Ironic.

    They admit that there is nothing of substance to their complaint during homeopathy awareness week.

    Jenny McCarthy might consider this to be clear evidence of a conspiracy, but she probably doesn’t pay attention to what happens in foreign countries, where people speak in foreign languages. Maybe she can’t find the Google Translator setting for English to American.

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