Singh plans to appeal ruling in libel case

Support campaign kicks off as science writer insists he will continue fighting suit over remarks about chiropractic treatments. Zoë Corbyn reports

June 4, 2009

A British science writer who is being personally sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) says he intends to appeal against a preliminary ruling in the case, citing the “chilling effect” that losing would have on public scientific discussion.

Simon Singh’s announcement was made at the same time as the launch of a publicity campaign supporting him, which aims to “keep libel laws out of science”.

So far, more than 100 leading scientists, writers, artists and lawyers have signed up to the campaign. They include Lord Rees, the president of the Royal Society, and Sir David King, the former Chief Scientific Adviser.

The campaign calls on the BCA to discuss the evidence for its treatments “outside the courtroom”, saying that it is “inappropriate” to use libel laws to “silence critical discussion of medical practice and scientific evidence”.

In a statement, the campaigners say: “Freedom to criticise and question in strong terms and without malice is the cornerstone of scientific argument and debate, whether in peer-reviewed journals, on websites or in newspapers, which have a right of reply for complainants.

“The libel laws and cases such as BCA v Singh have a chilling effect, which deters scientists, journalists and science writers from engaging in important disputes about the evidential base supporting products and practices.”

Dr Singh, who last year co-authored a book on complementary medicine, Trick or Treatment?, says he has spent many months and £100,000 building a defence against a BCA decision to sue him for libel. The legal action was prompted by a comment article Dr Singh wrote for The Guardian newspaper in April 2008 that criticised the promotion of chiropractic treatments, which are based on spinal manipulation, for infant conditions such as asthma.

In the article, Singh described the treatments as "bogus" and said the BCA "happily promotes" them.

Last month, prior to a full trial, the judge in the case made a ruling on the “meaning” of the article, which says that Dr Singh had in his article in effect accused the BCA of deliberate dishonesty in promoting the treatments.

Justice Eady said the article contained “the plainest allegation of dishonesty and indeed it accuses them [the BCA] of thoroughly disreputable conduct.”

It is this meaning – which Dr Singh says was not his intention and would be very hard to defend – that he is now appealing against.

“Although I maintain my position that such chiropractic treatment for childhood conditions lacks any significant scientific basis and that chiropractic in general carries risks, I do not and never have meant to imply that chiropractors are deliberately and dishonestly offering such treatments,” said Dr Singh, “I share the commonly held view that alternative therapists who offer treatments unsupported by reasonable evidence are deluded rather than deliberately dishonest. I think that Justice Eady has failed to interpret the meaning of the article in a way that a reasonable reader would understand it.”

“The problem from my point of view is that Justice Eady gave a meaning that I think is very extreme,” he said. “We thought the article had a different meaning, and we thought we would be going to trial on that.”

He said the application to the Court of Appeal would “probably fail” because meanings were rarely revisited. If it did fail, he would be prepared to appeal to the European Court of Human Rights.

“We will fight it until all the options are exhausted,” he said.

He added that he expected it to take one or two months before he knew whether his appeal had been accepted and up to six months before a final decision was made on whether or not it was successful.

Dr Singh said the case highlighted how the English libel laws clashed with the right to discuss science frankly and fairly.

“The clear message is back off,” he said. “Everyone agrees that there is something fundamentally wrong with the English libel laws, which have a chilling effect on journalists, whether they write about science or anything else.”

The campaign supporting Dr Singh is being run by the charity Sense about Science.

Tracey Brown, the charity’s director, said the lawsuit was clamping down and shutting off debate that should be of “huge public interest”.

It was not only about the rights of scientists and journalists to inform the public, but also about the right of the public to hear their voices, she said.

“We have had a long battle in the past decade to get scientists to speak up and share with the public their reasoning. There was a time when some people did not deign to. Now I think there is a real danger that people won’t dare to.”

Richard Brown, the vice-president of the BCA, said in a statement that the organisation had sued Dr Singh “only as an act of last resort”.

“He published what the association believed were libellous remarks in The Guardian.

“He could have retracted the remarks and apologised, and the debate would have continued away from the legal world. He chose not to do so.

“The case against Simon Singh has been re-characterised by his supporters as a freedom-of-speech issue. It is not. The law of libel is about the proper censuring of individuals’ ability to publish false and defamatory material that causes damage to reputation.

“To stifle scientific debate would clearly be wrong. The BCA is fully supportive of scientific debate, and this should be a fundamental right.

“However, with rights come responsibility, and scientists must realise that they cannot simply publish with impunity what they know to be untrue and libellous.”

zoe.corbyn@tsleducation.com

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