Most of us are familiar with the age old British maxim of ‘innocent until proven guilty.’ You can imagine my indignation then, when I recently discovered that this most time honoured of our traditions is inexplicably reversed when the crime in question is libel. That is, when a person says something about an individual or an organisation which might be seen to damage their reputation.
As long as the accuser can prove they have a reputation, and that this has been damaged – or to use the legal term, defamed – then the onus is on the defendant to either apologise and pay damages or go to court and fight. Of course the latter is potentially much more expensive.
In fact, looking into the matter a little more, I was shocked to find that a London defendant will pay typically 14 times more than anywhere else in Europe. What is more, legal aid is not provided for libel cases, so whilst a bloke from St. Paul’s can nick a TV and get help defending himself from the state, a journalist reporting a public scandal is in rather more of a pickle.
I’m not suggesting libel laws aren’t important. Without them anyone with vested interests could begin slagging off rival companies like nobody’s’ business. However, it appears that the state of our libel law is now in danger of infringing on our awe–inspiring heritage of scientific research.
Scientific knowledge is progressed by the constant challenging of ideas, so in order that it does not stagnate like some kind of forgotten Petri dish, it needs freedom for challenge and debate. Although this is still largely normality in high-brow journals, the libel laws have begun to remove this sort of freedom from the press. Journalists are scared to write exposés for fear of law suits and public interest stories are simply not commissioned by publishers for the same reasons.
A pertinent illustration of the problem was played out earlier this year. Bestselling author and general science hero Simon Singh wrote an article in The Guardian describing the history of chiropractic medicine and the lack of evidence which supports it today.
Chiropractors traditionally believed that since nerves protrude from the spinal column to the extremities of our bodies, manipulation of the back can act as a treatment for a range of ailments. Although many chiropractors have moved away from this fanciful outlook, and accept their profession as beneficial in a holistic and mental sense rather than a physiological one, there are dangerous exceptions. Recently more unsavoury characters from the profession have begun to peddle their trade as a cure for childhood asthma, despite the fact that there is not a shred of respected scientific evidence to support these claims.
After helpfully drawing this information to the public’s attention, Singh was no doubt somewhat upset to receive a letter from the British Chiropratic Association (BCA) which threatened to sue him for libel. The Guardian offered the BCA the chance to write an article in reply to no avail; knowing they had the law firmly at their disposal the BCA chose to pursue Singh personally. He now faces legal charges of £0.5 million or an out of court settlement of £100,000.
Singh’s case should act as a wake up call to us. If we let it pass, more and more informed commentators may be bullied into submission and we may never hear the truth about scientific issues which impact our lives; as a nation we have a right to know when we are being sold bad science. Let’s not allow public scientific debate to be snuffed out by these unfair laws – it’s time for reform.
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