Libel reform and science: the current state of play

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Today’s guest blogger is Rose Wu, Project Researcher at Sense About Science, the organisation that promotes good science and evidence for the public.

free debateAs scientists, you’ll appreciate the fundamental importance of openness in scientific discussion and debate. It may came as a shock to some of you then to find that this principle is being undermined and put at risk by the libel laws in England and Wales. Before I joined Sense About Science libel laws were barely even on my radar and free speech issues in this country were not something I ever worried about. But, as I quickly discovered,  scientific discussion of controversial areas is resulting in lawsuits and our libel laws are severely chilling free speech.  It is clear that there is a real and pressing problem.

Take the recent case of science writer Simon Singh.  Singh was sued in October 2008 by The British Chiropractic Association (BCA) when he criticised claims on their website that chiropractic could be used to cure childhood conditions such as colic and asthma. Instead of engaging in open discussion and debate, the BCA sued Singh personally. Although Singh’s case never even reached a proper trial as preliminary arguments were fought over meaning, it cost Singh two years and an eventual bill of £70,000 to defend his words.

Another case in 2007 involved science journalist Ben Goldacre, who was sued along with the Guardian after he wrote an article criticising the activities of vitamin pill manufacturer Matthias Rath.  Rath was promoting vitamin pills as a cure for AIDs in South Africa  and denouncing conventional therapies as toxic and harmful. Although Rath eventually dropped his libel suit, the case cost the Guardian £535,000 to defend and lasted 19 months. Only £365,000 of this was ever recovered which meant that for Goldacre and the Guardian, the cost of winning was £170,000: slightly less than the cost of the average house!

The cases of Simon Singh and Ben Goldacre are unusual in that they chose to fight – Simon at his own personal expense and Ben with the backing of the Guardian. But many people threatened with libel suits will have neither the means nor the inclination to take on a libel battle. Libel laws in England and Wales are claimant-friendly – anyone can bring a case without having to prove damage. Cases are complicated and their outcome difficult to predict (although, out of 154 cases identified in Justice Jackson’s 2008 review, zero were won by the defendants).  Cases take a long time to resolve and costs, both financial and personal, quickly accumulate. Research by Oxford University[1] has shown that libel cases in England and Wales are 140 times more expensive than their counterparts in Europe with costs often running into the millions. It is not surprising that scientists and writers are being intimidated out of  defending their opinions.

Sense About Science’s remit is to promote good science and evidence for the public, and to encourage scientists to stand up for science. When we realised scientists we were working with were becoming increasingly reluctant to go on record and speak out in public, we knew we had to do something. We launched the Keep Libel Laws Out of Science campaign last June, and our website displays a timeline showing key events from the campaign and Simon’s case. In November 2009 free speech organisations English PEN and Index on Censorship released a report on the chilling impact of English libel laws on freedom of expression. Our three organisations joined together as the Coalition for Libel Reform in December last year.

Since we launched our campaign, journalists, editors, comedians, scientists and bloggers have spoken out against the chilling effect of libel laws in England and Wales. Writers have told us how they are put off from tackling certain subjects, and editors of their struggle with their legal teams to publish controversial articles. Patient groups have stopped sharing information about treatments online, half of GPs surveyed said they are afraid to discuss concerns about drug safety and scientists have started to avoid criticising pseudoscience.  Libel laws in England and Wales are even being exploited to chill voices worldwide and London has come to be known as the ‘libel capital of the world’.

Science is  rooted in experiment and evidence and scientific progress centres crucially around discussion, argument, and criticism. This is why we have peer review, and why scientists will gather from around the world to discuss their research at scientific conferences. The problems with the libel laws in England and Wales mean that this discussion is being stifled – and when the discussion involves science, patients are put at risk and scientific progression is held back. A doctor prevented from criticising a drug or a medical device means that other doctors and patients are prevented from hearing his concerns. A scientist not discussing important issues means an incomplete perspective for others working in that field. Science is inherently self-correcting and scientists should be confident in the ability of evidence and debate to establish truths, rather than resorting to our libel laws to shut down argument.

Radical reform of the libel laws is essential. Piecemeal reform in the 1950s and 1990s did not address the profound problems – and no reform has ever addressed the new problems created by the rise of the Internet and the culture of online publication we have now. The new UK government included ‘reform of the libel laws to protect free speech’ in the Queen’s Speech legislation. The question now is how and when these promises will be put into action, and public pressure remains as important as ever. You can show your support for libel law reform by singing the campaign at http://www.libelreform.org/sign, and by encouraging people in your department, as well as friends and family to do so too.

This is the first time in over a century we have had an opportunity to change our unfair and repressive libel laws. Sign the petition at www.libelreform.org

[1] A Comparative Study of Costs in Defamation Proceedings Across Europe, Programme in Comparative Media Law and Policy Centre for Socio-Legal Studies, University of Oxford, December 2008

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One thought on “Libel reform and science: the current state of play

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Doctoral School and Doctoral School, Doctoral School. Doctoral School said: Libel reform and science: the current state of play, by Rose Wu of @senseaboutscience Excellent guest blog post! http://bit.ly/9tYUQF […]

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