Published online 13 May 2009 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2009.479

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Court setback for science writer

Libel case threatens discussion of science and medicine internationally, says Simon Singh.

Simon SinghSimon Singh.Suki Dhanda

A court case between one of Britain's leading science writers and an organization representing alternative medicine practitioners is causing renewed concern about the potential for libel laws to stifle debate on scientific issues.

Simon Singh, author of Fermat's Last Theorem and other books, is being sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association over an article he wrote for the Guardian newspaper last year. In an unusual move, the BCA is suing Singh personally, and not the newspaper.

The case has international implications for science reporting and journalism more generally, warns Singh. It comes against a background of increasing concern in many quarters that litigants opt for British courts as they are seen as easier places to get a favourable result; a problem labeled 'libel tourism'.

A recent case between vitamin advocate Matthias Rath and the Guardian over an article written by science columnist Ben Goldacre also raised similar concerns in the community. Rath eventually dropped his action.

Edzard Ernst, professor of complementary medicine at Peninsula Medical School in Plymouth, UK, says, "Recent history shows quite clearly there is a danger people can be silenced by the financial and legal might of their opponents."

“Internationally it's agreed that UK libel laws are ridiculous.”

Edzard Ernst
Peninsula Medical School

Ernst, who co-authored a recent book with Singh about alternative medicine, adds, "I was threatened with legal action many, many times and luckily I always escaped it. Internationally it's agreed that UK libel laws are ridiculous. They put the burden of proof on the wrong shoulder. That needs changing."

Day in court

Chiropractic treatment involves manipulating the spines of patients suffering from a variety of health problems. There is some evidence that spinal manipulation can help with lower back problems, but little evidence for other claims made by some chiropractors regarding problems such as asthma.

In a court hearing last week in London, High Court judge Mr Justice Eady was asked by both the BCA and Singh to rule on the meaning of an article published in the Guardian newspaper in April 2008.

Eady ruled that part of Singh's article could be taken to mean that the BCA knowingly promotes treatments that do not work. He also ruled that Singh's article was fact and not comment, meaning that if Singh had to defend this meaning of the article in court, he would have to demonstrate that the BCA believed that chiropractic treatments did not work.

“Everybody was shocked, to be honest.”

Simon Singh

In effect, Singh's choices are now to settle the case with BCA or appeal to overturn this possible interpretation or legal meaning of his article. Defending against the meaning as it stands is "not an option", Singh says.

"Everybody was shocked [by the ruling], to be honest," Singh told Nature News.

He says settling out of court could cost him more than £100,000 (US$153,000). But a loss in court in future could cost much more. However, he is considering an appeal over concerns that the case could inhibit open discussion, especially of alternative medicine and scientific topics.

"That's why we're not going to admit defeat right now, because every other journalist writing about alternative medicine — or writing about other controversial areas or areas where there's a dispute in terms of what our current understanding is — is really going to have to be looking over their shoulders in terms of what might follow," he says.

A move to appeal will have to be made by 28 May.

Taking care

On 7 May the BCA released a statement noting that:

<blockquote>

In April 2008 Simon Singh published an article in the Guardian newspaper and on Guardian Online in the course of which he wrote that: "the British Chiropractic Association claims that their members can help treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying, even though there is not a jot of evidence. This organisation is the respectable face of the chiropractic profession and yet it happily promotes bogus treatments."

The BCA asked Dr Singh to retract his allegations because they are factually wrong, defamatory and damaging to the BCA's reputation. Dr Singh refused to do so.

</blockquote>

BCA President Tony Metcalfe declared himself "delighted" with last week's ruling in the statement. Repeated requests for an interview or answers to written questions were declined by the BCA, via their PR firm Publicasity.

Neil White, a partner at legal firm Taylor Wessing (see note below), says the case should serve as a warning not just for science writers, but more generally for scientists and all who write about similar topics.

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"I think there is a degree of ignorance on the part of scientists about libel law, particularly UK libel law," he says. "I do think there are some scientists who are rather arrogant about it, and think because they're scientists with a view to express on a matter of potentially considerable importance they can say what they please. That is just not the case.

"The lesson I think they need to learn is you can usually say what you want to say in a way that doesn't expose you to litigation, by taking a bit of care and taking a bit of advice." 

Taylor Wessing undertakes legal work for Nature, among other companies.

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