Published online 3 June 2009 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2009.542
Corrected online: 4 June 2009

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Science writer will appeal libel case ruling

Simon Singh to contest judge's pretrial decision on article meaning.

Simon Singh.Simon Singh.Wikimedia Commons

Science writer Simon Singh will apply Monday to appeal an early ruling in the libel case brought against him by the British Chiropractic Association (BCA), he announced yesterday at a press conference in London.

High Court judge Mr Justice Eady ruled in early May that Singh's article in The Guardian last year could be interpreted by readers as meaning that the BCA knowingly promotes medical treatments that do not work. The ruling was a response to a pretrial request for clarification about the meaning of Singh's article from both sides in the libel case.

Singh and his lawyers argue that Eady's ruling mischaracterizes Singh's article, making the libel case unwinnable.

Today's announcement to fight the ruling came after weeks of deliberation. "The court of appeals doesn't like to overturn rulings on meaning," Singh admitted, "but I'm in the incredibly privileged position that I can defend this. I have a bank account that can support me; I have a wife who's very supportive; I have friends and family and scientists around me who support me.

"In a way I have a duty to do this because if I can't do it I don't think anybody else can," he added. If his appeal is denied, Singh says he and his counsel are prepared to take their case to the European Court of Human Rights.

Chilling effect?

Singh made the announcement alongside Tracey Brown from the non-profit lobby group Sense About Science, which is coordinating a broader campaign to keep English libel laws out of scientific debates. Brown warned that English libel law may stifle open debates. "In the past, scientists often didn't deign to [speak publicly]; now there's a risk they won't dare to," she said.

In fact, moderators of Nature Network — a social networking site for scientists hosted by Nature Publishing Group — recently removed a post from a discussion of the Singh case for legal reasons. "English libel law is strict — many say too strict — and if we take down a post then it is because we believe it to be in the interests of all concerned," wrote Timo Hannay, publishing director of nature.com, in a subsequent post explaining the removal.

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Sense About Science will release a statement later today calling for "a full review of the way that English libel law affects discussions about scientific and medical evidence". The statement is signed by prominent academics and journalists, including David King, the UK government's former chief scientific adviser, and Nature 's editor-in-chief, Philip Campbell, as well as novellists and entertainers.

Members of Parliament from the Liberal Democrat, Conservative and Labour parties released a statement of support for a change in English libel law, which they described as having a "chilling effect" on medical and scientific debate. The House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee is currently inquiring into libel law, and Brown said she hoped that Singh's case, and the Sense About Science campaign, would add pressure to change the law.

For now, though, Singh compares English libel trials to a high-stakes poker game that favours the rich: "If the other person on the other side of the table has got more money and is willing to keep going… it's not a way to run journalism and it's not a way to run science." 

Corrected:

We incorrectly stated that Timo Hannay was Nature Publishing Group's publishing director. He is the publishing director of nature.com
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