Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Bad libel

Singh, Goldacre and Cohen enjoying a pint at the Westminster Skeptics meeting.

Readers will know that I have been following the case of missing Madeleine McCann. I've been perturbed by the actions of their lawyers, Carter Ruck, who menace with libel anybody who questions the parent's story. They have managed to ban Goncalo Amaral's book 'The Truth of the Lie' and sent threatening legal letters to various websites and discussion forums. I recently spoke to a Sky News journalist who told me
"Any news comes in, we are told to write it from the point of view of the McCanns. But you will notice, we never say 'abducted' Madeleine McCann, we always say 'missing' or 'disappeared'".
Whatever you think about this case, most people would agree that free speech is important. Particularly in Portugal which only recently became a democracy.
On the 12th of October, around 8.30pm, I saw a tweet from @guardianmedia. They were being gagged from reporting on Parliamentary proceedings in apparent contravention of the Bill of Rights. Checking the story it was clear that Carter Ruck were up to their tricks again. But this time they went too far. Myself and many other twitterers RTed and spread the word wide and far. One blogger found out the story was regarding toxic dumping by Trafigura. Soon the words #carterruck #trafigura and #guardiangagging were trending all over the world.
The night after I attended a talk at a new branch of Skeptics in Westminster, started by lawyer David Allen Green. Tonight's star speaker was Simon Singh, fighting a libel action brought by the British Association of Chiropractors; and guest speakers, journalist Nick Cohen, and science writer Ben Goldacre.
Newsnight were there too. In fact I could be seen on the news clip that night, taking pictures and jotting down notes.
David has an interesting history...when I met him over a year ago he was a Conservative. But it was clear when talking to him that he was no ordinary Conservative, in fact many of his opinions were as far left as mine. In contrast to Winston Churchill's (1) dictum that...
"If you're not a liberal when you're 20, you have no heart. If
you're not a conservative when you're 40, you have no head."

...many people I know, myself included, seem to venturing further left as they grow older. Perhaps this is the Thatcher generation growing up? Green wrote a brave blog post earlier this year, in which he describes how he is no longer a Tory.

The mood in the meeting room that night was triumphant. Twitter had overturned the injunction by Carter Ruck on the Guardian, perhaps things were not as bleak for Simon Singh as previously thought?

David Allen Green thought that the court hearing could have been "the most important constitutional case of our generation". But Carter Ruck blinked first.

Simon Singh was going to face a similar ordeal the day after. He's a science writer who wrote in the Guardian that chiropractors made false claims as to the efficacy of their treatments, specifically in relation to curing asthma in children. He used the word 'bogus'. Whereas the rest of his article may have been fair comment, the use of this word provoked the British Chiropractic Association to sue for libel. Unusually they did not sue The Guardian, the paper that published the article, but Simon Singh personally.

Nick Cohen spoke to the meeting about how London has become the centre for libel tourism, where the international rich can seek redress in our courts, even if the supposed libel has not taken place in this country. He cited the example of Roman Polanski who sued the magazine Vanity Fair for libel, for they had suggested that he had made sexual advances to a Norwegian woman on the way to the funeral of his murdered wife Sharon Tate. Cohen is scathing:

"Polanski was a fugitive on the run from justice but he won against Vanity Fair. Polanski does not have a reputation to uphold, he's a self-confessed paedophile rapist."
British justice bent over backwards for Polanski, enabling him to testify via video link form Paris, for if he came to Britain, he risked being extradited to the United States for his rape of a 13 year old girl thirty years ago.

The judge found for Polanski saying we must not judge him on morals.

Cohen finished by joking that since the Simon Singh case, he was staggered by the sight of geeks in arms. "The thing about scientists" he said to laughter from the room full of beards and specs "don't make an enemy of them. May the force be with you."

Ben Goldacre spoke next. He fought a libel battle not so long ago and knows exactly what Singh is going through. He said that health was a particularly important area for freedom of speech. Peer review, criticism from others in the profession, is an essential part of medicine. The most popular and referenced medical papers were generally critical of certain drugs.

Speaking frankly, Goldacre owned up that what Singh said may have been unfair. But that was not his intention, it was a "slip of the pen". But for this he is being persecuted through the courts.

"It is ridiculous and dangerous for a discussion about the pros and cons of a treatment to be held in an atmosphere of fear.

Simon is lucky, he isn't alone and has fought the action. But with the libel laws at present, people are basically being told to 'shut up'. 'Shut up' is the argument of people with no arguments"

Simon Singh stood up to speak to a huge cheer. He talked of the expense of libel in Britain; it is a hundred times more expensive here than anywhere else in Europe, meaning only the rich can afford to sue for libel. Another worrying aspect of our libel laws is that the United States are having to change their laws to cope with our libel laws. The Americans reformed their libel laws in 1964, during the Civil Rights movement.

One of the issues is that along with the fact that Singh is being sued personally, he is not being sued by an individual but an association with all the structure and support that bestows. It 's David versus Goliath. We saw this in the Mclibel trial, the longest ever in British courts, lasting two and a half years, which was a PR disaster for McDonalds, backfiring badly.

As a lawyer from the city, David Allen Green explains, clients come with complaints. They don't know the technicalities, they just want someone to shut up. Some times it's copyright, sometimes it's contempt of court. It's ridiculously easy to sue for libel.

The Lords say that companies which have shareholders can sue.

There are four degrees of libel, Green explains:

  • Being Sued
  • Articles being spiked
  • Articles heavily lawyered
  • and perhaps the most worrying, articles which are not written at all, the result of self-censorship.

'Just as politics cannot be separated from life, life cannot be separated from politics. People who consider themselves to be non-political are no different; they've already been assimilated by the dominant political culture--they just don't feel it any more.' Pramoedya Ananta Toer
The situation now, with bloggers, Facebook and Twitter, with everybody writing and reporting, harks back to the 17th century fashion for pamphleteering. As Cohen says
"The net makes hacks of all of us. The law sees all of us as publishers."
The campaign for libel reform is not just about science. We are not getting good journalism as a result of libel law. It is a maxim that you can say what you like about politicians, mostly they are fair game. But The City, which has collapsed this economy, has been untouchable. In 2008, a Danish newspaper investigating Icelandic banks, received a writ, preventing them from reporting what they found. We all know what happened to the Icelandic banks.
Singh gets up and answers questions: 
"Is the Guardian supporting you?"
"The Guardian were helpful for the first six or seven weeks. They offered the right of reply or clarification to the BCA. But they wanted a full out apology. The Guardian agreed. However I can't apologize for something that I believe is true. I can't have my wiki page saying that I caved."
Ben Goldacre: 
"Three months my life was dominated by my libel case, sitting in the dock. It cost £535,000 for my defence. We won but still after costs we were £175, 000 out. It took a year and a half of my life altogether."
"I've kept in touch with The Guardian. The problem for them was they were not actually being sued, I was. I understood their position: If they backed me, even if we won, they would lose at least £175k. They thought 'If we lose, we lose a million. This is during a time when we are laying off journalists.' How could they justify that? At that time they were being sued by Tesco, Elton John, Ben's case, too much going on at that time. If the Guardian helped with the defence, they could be implicated."
Local newspapers don't even bother writing about anything controversial anymore. They can't afford it. 
More news on the Simon Singh case and Superlibel can be read at the JackofKent blog. 
Personally I don't find it a particularly outrageous claim that chiropractors can help childhood asthma with manipulations of the body and massage. In France kinesitherapists do this all the time, paid for by the French National Health. I'd certainly rather that than an inhaler which is what British GPs hand out at the drop of a hat. But then I'm not a scientist, I'm just a mother, who relies on her own instincts, knowledge, observation and connection with her child to determine what is best for her health. In the past, I've found I am generally right and the doctor is generally wrong.

(1) Although looking further into this quote it appears it might be a mistake to attribute it to Churchill.


  1. And you were going so well until you got to the last paragraph and ruined it.

  2. lol. So sorry Crispian!
    The trouble is that scientists like to think of anyone who gives credence to or uses alternative medicine or worse, as in my case, astrology, is a fuzzy brained loony.
    I'm interested in Science. I'm interested in the issues and the debate. Libel law should of course be reformed. But I am, as Jack of Kent describes, a friendly non skeptic.

  3. Of course my child's asthma WAS helped by chiropractic treatment,
    as well as other alternative
    Over here across the pond as it were, the AMA are institutionally blind to most disease's operational parameters one cause for one symptom or it does not exist in their world.
    This is not the way the world works, or for that mater cancer. fleas on the backs of fleas with yet more parasites on the back of them add infinitum.
    with apologies to Johnathan swift

    doubt is my faith.
    inquisitiveness is my passion
    kindly co-operation is my religion

    keep up the struggle for truth, justice and really good food
    my marmite lovin' pal


  4. portugal is a democracy since 74, but on the past 2-3 years we are getting more and more restrictions about free speach

  5. What's wrong with inhalers? My son had one and was fine with it.

  6. I'm very interested in alternative healthcare and I've used Reiki, Spiritualist hands-on healing and chiropractors. I've had good results with all of them. As long as they keep working I'm going to keep using them!

    However I'm very into Free Speech and I defend Simon Singh's right to criticize chiropractors if he wishes.

    In my experience Skeptics and scientists themselves are not as lilly-white in these controversies as they sometimes like to portray themselves; The JREF Forum is loaded with Stalinist rants urging homeopathy to be outlawed etc. Last year the city council in Philadeplphia USA banned Spiritualist mediums, much to the applause of the JREF. Crispian I defend your right to Free Speech; I therefore hope you will return that gesture to those of us who use alternative remedies.

  7. Skepticat: If somebody has severe asthma of course an inhaler is essential. But GPs are handing them out for every tiny cough.
    I've heard that in Australia they are discouraging the use of inhalers, in part because they harm the ozone layer.
    There is also the Buteyko breathing technique. Here is a study done in Queensland: http://www.mja.com.au/public/issues/xmas98/bowler/bowler.html

    The BBC reports on Buteyko: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/6246228.stm

    Aloe Vera: I agree. But Portugal being a democracy since 1974 is quite a short amount of time in the scheme of things.

    Ben: It's important to maintain an open mind isn't it?

    Jim: Glad to hear your child's asthma was helped by natural means...


I would love to hear what you think of this post! I try to reply to every comment (if there is a delay, I am probably away from an internet connection or abroad)