Thursday, April 01, 2010

When the courts Singh out.

The majority of skeptics and science fans in the UK have eagerly been watching the court case between Dr. Simon Singh and The British Chiropractic Association(BCA) and more recently the court of appeal battle. The case started when Dr. Singh wrote a column on the 19th of April 2008. In the column Singh expressed opinions that the BCA were not inclined to like. Mainly the line;

"The fundamentalists argue that they can cure anything. And even the more moderate chiropractors have ideas above their station. 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 were super pissed off that Dr. Singh wrote "...happily promotes bogus treatments." and I'm pretty sure that the "...not a jot of evidence." didn't tickle their fancy either. After reading this the BCA did whatever any normal, rational and sane person would do. Instead of fighting with their words and proving their point, using science to show up Dr. Singh, they spoke to their lawyers and then sued seven bells of shit out of him for having an opinion that has the cheek of, as so far, been supported absolutely by the scientific evidence.

The scientific community, the skeptical community and a lot of the blogging world were not too chuffed to hear about this and were then less than pleased to hear that the BCA won the case. The shocker of the case was that Singh had written the article in the Guardian and normal practice would have meant that The Guardian would get sued, but for some reason the BCA succeeded in suing the author of the article.

For those of you not in the know, there is currently a campaign fighting to have the libel laws changed, if successful this kind of thing would not be allowed to happen. Science writers would have the freedom to write about the evidence without fear of having their pants sued off, but it doesn't stop there, more and more people are being sued for libel in the UK. This is because the libel laws are pretty poor in comparison to the rest of the world. The laws are in such dire straits that libel tourism has started up, this is where people from across the world sue people through courts in the UK because they know that it is easier to win the case due to crap laws.

Anyhow, the Sense About Science campaign supported Dr. Singh all the way, but still the BCA won. The hero of the story wasn't about to take this lying down and even with the court costs going up and up he still fought on, when asked whether it is worth it Dr. Singh said;

"If I fail to speak out then I am not doing my job as a doctor and I am breaking the Hippocratic Oath. I'd rather be sued for libel."

Edit: This is a misquote, this was said by Dr Wilmshurst involved in a completely different libel case. The intended quote is "I refuse to apologise for an article that I believe to be fair, accurate and in the public interest. So two years on I'm still fighting the case, and it could last for another two years." Sorry for the confusion and thank you to DrAust for paying more attention to what I write than I do!

Good man! I have been to see Singh speak on the case, heard him talk about libel reform and even had the pleasure of having a minute to talk to him(quite literally one minute, well almost a full minute), and he is genuinely dedicated to having the libel laws changed. I say "More power to him.". Even after being sued he wouldn't lie down, no-siree-Bob, he kept fighting and even faced with the fact that the court costs could run into the £1 million range he fought on with all he could, he went to the courts of appeal, he toured the country giving talks(like the one I mentioned earlier) about his case, his articles and about the libel laws, he also publicised the law suit, got it coverage in the news and in the papers. 

By the end of the case he had spent £200,000 on legal fees, he has lost over 44 weeks in time and he has had to give up his column on The Guardian website. One column, once an month and he couldn't write it, that is how much of his time it took. Just think about that, once a month, one column., not enough time. Wow!
Now here is the good news, he won, his appeal was allowed! As of today the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Judge, master of the rolls Lord Neuberger and Lord Justice Sedley ruled that the high court had had made an error in judgement. All that time, money and dedication had paid off. Dr. Singh has now been told that his opinions are actually opinions. That's great news. But the campaign goes on. Not only is it science writers that have the libel laws hold their writing, but many others are affected by these unjust laws.

This in no way takes away from what is an awesome ruling from the court of appeal, my only beef is that it should have never gotten this far. In most other countries this would have been settled in a matter of seconds and the cost to Dr. Singh, the cost to the government and the cost to the BCA(but I couldn't care less about those costs) could have been avoided. 

What we all need to do now is make sure that this doesn't go away, make sure we keep advertising the cause and make sure that more people than ever sign the Petition for Libel Reform. We need to ride the coat tails of this great success, we all need to be writing to our MPs letting them know what we think about libel laws, go on marches to get things changed, link to the petition on you blog or at the very least, if you haven’t already, just sign the bloody petition to reform the libel laws!

All in all it has been a good day for the libel campaign and I hope that it goes from strength to strength. I will be supporting the cause and I really hope you all will too.

-Alex Dennerly


  1. I don't think Simon's taken a Hippocratic Oath, Alex, as his doctorate is a PhD in Theoretical Physics. The remark you quote was actually made by cardiologist Peter Wilmshurst, who is a medical doctor and is also being sued - see here.

    PS Am I allowed to plug my own short piece on today's ruling? May add some more analysis of the case over the w/end if time permits. (And you can find my older stuff on the Singh case on my blog by going to the category cloud and selecting "back-cracking")

  2. Yes you may indeed plug your own piece. I do apologise, due to rushing I got my quotes mixed up. Many tabs open in chrome and a cut got pasted where a it should not have. I quickly wanted to put a quote in for him and a brief interview with Simon Singh had just gone up on the New Scientist site but apparently my proof reading ability is not as well developed as I had hoped. The actual quote was;

    I refuse to apologise for an article that I believe to be fair, accurate and in the public interest. So two years on I'm still fighting the case, and it could last for another two years.

    I hope this clears thing up. Thanks for pointing this out.