Society of Homeopaths director and MMR solicitor Richard Barr: Using British libel law to silence Paul Offit

Over the years, I’ve pointed out just how horrible British libel laws are. If there is a set of laws more designed to be used and abused by the wealthy to silence criticism, it’s British libel laws. Indeed, I was pointing out the travesty that is British libel law in the context of David Irving’s use of it to try to silence Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt years before Simon Singh became a cause celebre in the skeptical community after the British Chiropractic Association sued him on the flimsiest of grounds. Fortunately, the BCA lost, but only after coming very close to winning and costing Singh a lot of money to defend. Given the how onerous the libel laws in the U.K. are, I’ve said many times that, if I lived in the U.K., I wouldn’t be blogging. It’s way too risky. Even here in the good ol’ USA, bloggers aren’t entirely safe, thanks to the phenomenon of libel tourism. Actually, that was true until recently, when the U.S. passed a law prohibiting the collection of defamation judgments through U.S. courts from nations whose libel laws are not consistent with the First Amendment. The law also protects Internet service providers against such actions.

Despite campaigns to reform British libel laws and keep libel laws out of science, however, British libel laws remain an atrocity against free speech. Another example of how these laws are used by cranks to try to shut down legitimate criticism surfaced last week while I was away. Actually, it’s a story I knew about a month ago but, because I was asked not to write about it, I did not blog about it, even though I wanted to do so really, really bad. Fortunately, the the Quackometer has written about it now, making it public knowledge:

In his Spiked article, Michael Fitzpatrick describes how anyone who dares stand up against the cabal of celebrity know-nothings is likely to face “intimidation, threats of litigation and ad hominem attacks”.

It is therefore not surprising that Offit himself is facing a legal challenge to his book in the UK – the natural home of the misconceived libel case.

According to a BMJ news report, Richard Barr threatened libel action over a single sentence in the book that claimed that, as a solicitor, he had personally paid Andrew Wakefield money to “carry out a study for the purpose of the MMR litigation”.

Richard Barr, who is currently a Director of the Society of Homeopaths, an organisations whose members promote their own alternatives to MMR, was the solicitor who was at the heart of the MMR scare with Andrew Wakefield.

I found out about this when a British blogger, who had been originally sent a copy of Dr. Offit’s book to review, received an e-mail from Dr. Offit’s British publisher, Basic Books, requesting the review copy back and informing the blogger that “for legal reasons we have had to cancel the publication of this book.” I had to tell the blogger that I had no idea what this was about, but it didn’t take me long to find out that Richard Barr was threatening legal action against Perseus over one sentence. A week later, I somehow missed a story published in the BMJ that described what had happened:

Basic Books, the book’s publisher, has agreed to remove a sentence suggesting that Mr Barr personally paid money to Andrew Wakefield, the doctor who hypothesised that the vaccine might cause autism, to carry out a study for the purpose of the MMR litigation.

In fact Dr Wakefield’s fees of £440 000 (€524,000; $714,000) as an expert witness in the case came from the Legal Aid Board, now the Legal Services Commission, which agreed to fund the study.

This is, of course, highly disingenuous in that there is copious evidence that Richard Barr did indeed pay for the “research” done by Andrew Wakefield’s group whose reporting sparked the MMR scare that led to dramatic declines in MMR uptake in the U.K. and the subsequent resurgence of measles in the U.K. True, Barr didn’t personally pay Andrew Wakefield, but, as Brian Deer reported, Barr had directed large payments to Wakefield through the Legal Aid Board (now the Legal Services Commission), a fund run by the U.K. government to assist poor people in having access to justice. As revealed in a freedom of information request, the total payment directed to Andrew Wakefield was £435,643 plus expenses. Although Barr didn’t directly pay Wakefield himself, he might as well have. Wakefield’s work to try to discredit the MMR vaccination was trial lawyer-purchased science, bought and paid for to the tune of £150 per hour through the efforts of Richard Barr. In fact, as Le Canard Noir points out, the ultimate payouts, as revealed from further documents obtained from the U.K. Legal Services Commission, show huge amounts of money paid out as fees and expenses to the scientific “experts” under Wakefield’s direction:

In addition to the personal payments was an initial award of £55,000, applied for by Wakefield in June 1996 – but, like the hourly fees, never declared to the Lancet, as it should have been – for the express purpose of conducting the research later submitted to the journal. This start-up funding was part of a staggering £18m of taxpayers’ money eventually shared among a group of doctors and lawyers, working under Barr’s and Wakefield’s direction, to try to prove that MMR caused the previously unheard-of “syndrome”. Yet more surprising, Wakefield had predicted the existence of such a syndrome – which he would later dub “autistic enterocolitis” – before he carried out the research.

This Barr-Wakefield deal was the foundation of the vaccine crisis, both in Britain and throughout the world. “I have mentioned to you before that the prime objective is to produce unassailable evidence in court so as to convince a court that these vaccines are dangerous,” the lawyer reminded the doctor in a confidential letter, six months before the Lancet report.

Ultimately, Wakefield’s work in the 1990s resulted in the infamous (and now retracted) Lancet paper in 1998 detailing a case series of 12 children and implicating the MMR as an etiological factor contributing to a syndrome of regressive autism and enterocolitis. The reason for this long overdue retraction was that it was shown quite convincingly by Brian Deer that Wakefield had committed scientific fraud. Of course, the truly odd thing about Barr’s legal intimidation is that as I noted when I reviewed Dr. Offit’s book, I noted that he said very little about Andrew Wakefield. Indeed, Wakefield was hardly mentioned. Indeed, the sentence that Mr. Barr claims to object to didn’t even raise an eyebrow, other than due to the utter brevity that Dr. Offit used to describe the entire incident. Why Dr. Offit chose to downplay the Wakefield incident so in this book, I don’t know, but I did find it odd. Unfortunately, British libel laws being what they are, even relegating the Wakefield affair to such minor coverage in relationship to its importance in the MMR scare in the U.K. over the last 13 years is, thanks to the perverse vagaries of British libel law, even that is no protection.

Even the new U.S. law, although it helps, doesn’t prevent mischief. The reason, of course, is that usually the goal of cranks is not to win a judgment, but to shut down criticism by any means necessary. To that end, even though it would have been pretty pointless for Barr to sue Dr. Offit directly, legal threats against his U.K. publisher are very effective. All Barr has to accomplish is–if you’ll forgive the term–to raise the bar on the costs of publication to the point that publishing Dr. Offit’s book can’t be profitable. Given the low profit margin of most books, likely Dr. Offit’s included, a few legal fees spent to fend off threats like that of Mr. Barr go a long way towards discouraging publishers from publishing critical or controversial books. That’s the point.

Perhaps the most bizarre thing I learned about this case is that Richard Barr is now on the Board of Directors of the Society of Homeopaths (SOH). Talk about bringing it all back home! A bit more than three years ago, it was the SOH that used legal thuggery to threaten Le Canard Noir to force his ISP to take down a post critical of the SOH and how it promoted homeopathy as a means of combatting malaria. In light of knowing that Richard Barr is on the SOH Board of Directors, it’s all making sense now. I don’t know if Barr was a director back in 2007, but it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if he was. The tactic of threatening legal action to shut up those expressing inconvenient opinions is so Richard Barr. It also makes sense because of the anti-vaccine views promulgated by members of the SOH.

Actually, in my six-plus years of blogging, one thing I’ve learned is that it’s a sina qua non of cranks of all stripes, be they homeopaths, anti-vaccine loons, or many other varieties of boosters of pseudoscience that they cannot tolerate criticism from supporters of science. Consequently, they often lash out, either in the form of ad hominem attacks, attempts to “out” pseudonymous critics (many of which I’ve weathered through the years, so much so that such threats cause little more than a huge yawn in me when I encounter them), and, in extreme cases, threats of libel actions against those who have the temerity to call them out on their pseudoscience, as Dr. Offit called out various members of the anti-vaccine movement in his book. In the U.S., the law is informed by the First Amendment, which means that the bar for proving libel is high, making frivolous defamation suits a long run for a short slide. They’re rarely worth it for the crank. Unfortunately, in the U.K., they are quite often worth it, because the bar for proving libel is so low and the cost of defending against it is so high. Barr merely took advantage of that situation and, since U.S. law has placed Dr. Offit himself for all practical purposes beyond reach of British libel law, decided to go after Dr. Offit’s publisher.

Sadly, this case is yet another of a long and sordid line of frivolous libel actions and threats of libel actions that have been either brought or threatened in British courts in order to silence defenders of science-based medicine. In this case, even though most likely Dr. Offit’s book will ultimately be published in the U.K., the one mention of a key feature in the MMR scare will have succeeded in having his name scrubbed from it. That is the cost of Britain’s insane libel laws.