Simon Singh’s Resounding Victory Raises Hope Of Libel Reform

(Guardian) – A LEADING SCIENCE WRITER has won a “resounding victory” in the court of appeal over a libel battle which has become a catalyst for the reform of English libel laws, which critics claim stifle scientific debate. Today’s decision will strengthen the position of other science writers facing libel suits as the judges made clear that court was not the place to settle scientific controversies.

The landmark ruling, which cited Orwell and quoted passages from Milton in defence of free speech, will allow Simon Singh to rely on a “fair comment” defence of his statements about chiropractors, for which he is being sued. The court of appeal overturned an earlier ruling which would have meant that Singh would have had to prove in court that his comments about chiropractors were factually correct to avoid a libel judgment against him.

Singh was accused of libel by the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) over an opinion piece he wrote in the Guardian in April 2008. In the article, he criticised the BCA for claiming its members could use spinal manipulation to treat children with colic, ear infections, asthma, sleeping and feeding conditions and prolonged crying. He described the treatments as “bogus” and based on insufficient evidence and criticised the BCA for “happily promoting” them. The BCA denies these criticisms.

Following today’s ruling, Singh’s comments are recognised by the court as a matter of opinion which did not imply that the BCA was being consciously dishonest.

On the steps of the court, Singh, who faces further court action, described the ruling as “brilliant” but added: “It is extraordinary this action has cost £200,000 to establish the meaning of a few words.”

Singh’s lawyer, Robert Dougans, said: “Scientists have been – rightly – concerned about the consequences they might face if opponents seek to counter their arguments with a libel claim rather than engage in debate and research. The court of appeal’s brave decision today gives hope that important research on scientific matters will be protected against libel threats and will hopefully make people think again before embarking on legal action hoping to shut down debate.

“It is clear from the judgment that the court of appeal is not satisfied with the current state of English libel laws and recognises the absurdities and injustices that can result from them as they currently stand.”

Mark Stephens, a media lawyer, said the judges should be “warmly applauded for avoiding turning court 13 into an Orwellian Ministry of Truth”. He said libel lawyers had tried to make litigation over what is an opinion “increasingly technical” and “increasingly expensive”. Since the ruling, he had already advised a client facing a libel suit that he was in a better position than before.

Allen Green, the writer of the 2010 Orwell Prize-longlisted blog Jack of Kent, said of Singh’s appeal: “His victory is cheering, but for him to have got here has been a complex, depressing, and obscenely expensive journey.

“This is not an example of the English libel laws working. Instead it is a horrifying example of how bad they really are. For him to have to struggle to win in this way signals the urgent need for libel reform.”

Evan Harris, the Liberal Democrat MP who has led the cross-party parliamentary campaign for reform, welcomed the judgment but said it was no substitute for libel reform. He said: “The political parties must now all commit to reform of the law to free scientific speech and responsible journalism from the threat of penury.”

The ruling, by England’s two senior judges, the lord chief justice of England and the master of the rolls, together with Lord Justice Smedley, was scathing of the way the BCA began libel proceedings against Singh rather than taking up the Guardian’s offer of a right to reply. It acknowledged that the action had a “chilling effect on public debate” which it described as a “surprising consequence of laws designed to protect reputation”.

It said the BCA’s actions had created the “unhappy impression” that “it is an endeavour by the BCA to silence one of its critics”.

In a development which would strengthen the position of any science or health writer facing libel threats, the judges also made it clear that they believed court was not the place to settle scientific controversies. They wanted to avoid “an Orwellian ministry of truth” in which an author had to prove in court what he had asserted.

The case has led to a campaign to raise awareness of Britain’s libel laws, which many consider to be among the most anti-free speech in the world.

The BCA posted a statement on its website today saying it was not its intention to suppress free speech and it was simply seeking to clear its name. It was considering whether to seek permission to appeal to the supreme court in the light of what it described as a disappointing ruling.

Richard Brown, the group’s president, said: “This is not the end of the road.”