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 Â£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.