Hearing Singh

A powerful and well-organised campaign has developed over the last year for fundamental reform of English libel law.

Only in the last week has this campaign has engaged with the legal profession, hosting a high-profile launch event at The Law Society itself.

This new demand for libel is being articulated not only in terms of defending newspapers, nor the need for a “free press”. 

Curiously, it is not being driven by the mainstream media, though they are indicating their support. The emphasis is instead on the public interest, not the media’s interest.

The contention is that the public is simply not getting access to information to inform decisions on what are clearly public matters, ranging from public health to environmental pollution, because of the direct and indirect effects of libel on writers and publications.

The case which has become the cause célèbre for this movement is the libel case brought by the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) against the science writer Simon Singh. 

In an article published in The Guardian in April 2008, Singh described chiropractic remedies for certain childhood ailments, such as asthma and frequent ear infections, as “bogus” for which there is not “a jot of evidence”. 

Singh accused the BCA of “happily” promoting these treatments; the BCA then sued him directly and not The Guardian, refusing a right of reply.

Until the preliminary hearing of this case in May 2009, there was little interest in this case in the mainstream media.  However, when news broke that the High Court had made a ruling on meaning which appeared to require Singh to have to show as a fact that the BCA were being deliberately dishonest rather than mistaken, there was an explosion of concern. 

The Court of Appeal has now granted Singh leave to appeal this ruling, assembling the Lord Chief Justice, Master of the Rolls and Lord Justice Sedley and to hear the appeal, likely on 23 February 2010.

It appears to many onlookers as a very strong panel for hearing what is actually an appeal on a preliminary issue of meaning and not a substantive judgment.

Scientists and researchers in universities have now come together to support the Sense About Science “Keep Libel Laws Out of Science” campaign.  A petition swiftly received over 20,000 signatures, including the President of the Royal Society and the Astronomer Royal, as well as numerous Nobel prize winners and prominent science writers.  In October 2009 the Liberal Democrats committed themselves to libel reform following a dramatic oration at their conference by Professor Richard Dawkins.

It is also becoming harder to dismiss these concerns as somehow being based on a misunderstanding of libel case. 

Not only is there the Singh case.  There is also the hugely expensive libel case brought against Ben Goldacre and The Guardian by a salesman promoting vitamin products in South Africa for treatment of HIV-AIDS. 

In addition to these actual cases, there was a widely-felt concern that many scientific and medical articles were just not being published, or even being written, because of libel chill.

There are many anecdotes of good papers not being published, and bad papers not being criticised and even being published, because of libel risk. 

It is striking but a surprise that amongst those leading this campaign are the editors of august publications such as New Scientist and the British Medical Journal.

There is now likely to be libel reform in the next parliament: not all law reform is imposed from the above.

Allen Green writes the Jack of Kent http://www.jackofkent.com] legal blog and is a supporter of Sense About Science [http://www.senseaboutscience.org.uk/index.php/site/project/333].