Published online 20 April 2010 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2010.192

News: Q&A

'People work all their lives and never get a judgment like that'

Simon Singh's lawyer discusses the libel case that may end up reforming English law.

Harris Singh DougansEvan Harris, Simon Singh and Robert Dougans celebrate a victory for free speech.D. Cressey

Earlier this month, the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) ended its libel case against science writer Simon Singh. Although the BCA continues to claim that the article he penned on chiropractic in The Guardian in 2008 was defamatory, an Appeal Court decision on 1 April had ruled that Singh could offer a 'fair comment' defence, putting him in a much stronger legal position.

That court ruling may eventually lead to wider protection for scientists sued in the English courts. Nature spoke to Singh's lawyer, Robert Dougans of law firm Bryan Cave in London, about a fight that looks set to go down in legal history.

How did you first become involved in this case?

I was actually on holiday in Uzbekistan. I was e-mailed by a friend who said: "A friend of mine is getting sued for something he wrote in The Guardian."

I thought it would be dealt with by The Guardian and it would go away quite quickly. I didn't imagine it would be very interesting or significant. When I got back and read all the paperwork it was terrifying.

We offered to settle before the action for a clarification [of the article]. Then we had a mediation that failed. Then we applied to Mr Justice Eady for a ruling on meaning and whether it was comment or not.

What was the impact of Mr Justice Eady's May 2009 ruling on the meaning of the article?

The Eady ruling meant that the article was fact and not comment. That meant you couldn't rely on the defence of what used to be called 'fair comment' and is now called 'honest opinion' as a result of this case.

The other ruling was that Singh had accused the BCA of being 'knowingly dishonest'. He thought and we thought that the meaning of the article was that they were being reckless: they were promoting chiropractic when the best evidence is against it, or that there is no evidence for its efficacy. Eady said it meant they were being consciously dishonest.

Did you think fighting the case on that basis would have been impossible?

“It was a comprehensive, thorough win.”

We started off thinking it was just hell and there was no way of doing it. When it went wrong, though, people got involved. Allen Green [legal writer and author of the Jack of Kent blog] and Simon organized this rally in a pub in Holborn [in London], and I thought it would be a few people in the pub and we'd go and commiserate a resounding defeat.

It was absolutely packed. People kept turning up.

Dave Gorman, the comedian, just turned up. Professor Brian Cox [of the University of Manchester] came. [Liberal Democrat Member of Parliament] Evan Harris came. Robin Ince, the comedian, was there. Professor Richard Wiseman [of the University of Hertfordshire in Hatfield] came. I apologize to the people I have left out — there were so many I could not keep track. All of these people ended up pressed into service to make a speech pretty quickly, but they were just turning up as individuals concerned about what had happened.

Before becoming involved in this case, did you think the libel laws did need to be reformed?

Yes I did. I think most of the lawyers I respect who work in libel think they do. The system takes too long; it's too expensive; and not only does that harm real people who want to write about controversial issues, it also harms someone on the receiving end of bad journalism.

After the Eady ruling, what was the next step?

We asked for leave to appeal from Mr Justice Eady, who turned us down. We then asked the Court of Appeal for permission to appeal.

There are two stages to this: the first is to ask on paper for an appeal and the second is to ask the court to change its mind at an oral hearing. Lord Justice Keene turned us down on paper and said there was no prospect of success. That was really disheartening.

Time went on and we applied for an oral hearing and we started to feel more optimistic. We thought we had a shot at defending this. The more we learnt about the science behind chiropractic and the more we learnt about the way the BCA had been behaving and the claims they'd been making, the more we thought maybe we can do it.

Then we got the hearing before Lord Justice Laws, and he basically gave us a pretty good thumbs up. Then the bandwagon just started rolling on and it was amazing.

What happened at the appeal hearing itself?

It did seem clear that the three lord justices were not happy with what had gone on and they were not happy with the conduct of the BCA in suing Simon directly. That I think was the important bit for us.

Then we went away. It was really nail-biting, because there was a good chance that if we won this it would be the end of it. If we lost, fighting the case would be expensive and long.

What was your immediate reaction when you did get the judgment?

I just couldn't believe it. Plenty of people work all their lives and never get a judgment like that. It references Milton, Galileo and the 'Orwellian ministry of truth'. It has vicious attacks — by judicial standards — on the way the other side has behaved in suing him and it adopts the American decision [a 1994 ruling on scientific controversies] about making it hard to sue scientists.

It was amazing. The judiciary was saying, 'we're calling for reform, we're doing our bit', and they're calling on politicians to get up and do their bit. It was a comprehensive, thorough win.


How would you like to see libel law reformed, to make sure there isn't another Simon Singh case?

I think we need a public-interest defence, like they have in America. We have the Reynolds defence [a form of public-interest defence], but it just isn't good enough to protect the media. We need a proper protection for anyone who is writing in the public interest.

Scientists are being squashed, journalists are being squashed. I hope the next government listens to Sense About Science, Pen, and Index on Censorship and gives us a good public-interest defence. Otherwise, this information age is going to be strangled. Or, worse still, we [in England] are going to be left out of it.

This interview was edited for length and clarity. 

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