Science writer brings libel law campaign to Sheffield

A SCIENCE writer who is being sued for expressing his views on alternative medicine brings his campaign for a change in the libel laws to Sheffield next week.

Dr Simon Singh, who has an MBE for services to science, says if he loses his battle – which reaches the Court of Appeal on February 22 – it will be a massive blow against freedom of speech.

The writer's Libel Reform campaign is supported by a galaxy of celebrities from the world of science, the arts and comedy, including Ricky Gervais, Stephen Fry, Richard Dawkins and former government chief scientist Sir David King.

Sheffield Hallam MP and Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg has added his voice to the campaign, saying he is "deeply concerned" about the chilling effect libel laws are having on scientific debate and investigative journalism.

"Our libel law has turned a country once famed for its traditions of freedom and liberty into a legal farce where people and corporations with money can impose silence on others at will," he said. "I believe in raucous freedom of speech, not gagging orders in our courts."

A pledge to reform the libel laws was adopted by the Lib Dems at last year's party conference and an early day motion – signed by 159 MPs from all political parties – is adding to the pressure on Justice Secretary Jack Straw, who is reviewing the libel laws, to make a radical change.

Dr Singh has a PhD in particle physics and has worked as a director and producer on TV programmes including Tomorrow's World and Horizon. He was sued by the British Chiropractic Association two years ago after he claimed the organisation "happily promotes bogus treatments" in an article published by a national newspaper. They demanded an apology and retraction and won a preliminary court ruling against the writer last June.

In the ruling Mr Justice Eady ruled that Dr Singh's use of the word "bogus" meant he was accusing the association of being dishonest in promoting treatments that it knew did not work. Dr Singh refutes Eady's interpretation, claiming that he simply meant that "alternative therapists who offer treatments unsupported by reasonable evidence are deluded rather than deliberately dishonest."

Law lords will decide on the outcome of the case at the Court of Appeal in two weeks but Dr Singh already faces a crippling 100,000 bill for the costs of defending himself to this point.

"Whatever decision they reach will have a great impact," said Dr Singh, who will comment on the legal battle on Monday at Sheffield Skeptics in the Pub in the Lescar, Sharrowvale Road.

"It will either reinforce the current situation or overturn the current libel laws."

In the UK the all the weight of proof in a libel action rests on the defendant. Unlike the USA, whose constitution defends the right to freedom of speech, libel in this country depends upon people's ability to pay. This had led to libel tourism, which Nick Clegg has said is "making a mockery of British justice, with foreign plaintiffs able to bring cases against foreign defendants when the publications in question may have sold just a handful of copies in England".

People who are sued for libel are not entitled to legal aid and most ordinary people simply cannot afford the huge legal bill to defend themselves in court. The UK Index on Censorship has found the cost of defending a libel action in the UK is a hundred times greater than anywhere in mainland Europe.

In a speech to the Royal Society last month Nick Clegg said: "Of course people have the right to protect their reputations from damaging and false statements made recklessly, irresponsibly or with malice. But scientists must be allowed to question claims fearlessly, especially those that relate to medical care, environmental damage and public safety, if we are to protect ourselves against dubious research practices, phoney treatments and vested corporate interests.

"English libel law as it stands is obstructing that process and threatens the public good as a result. The prospect of a costly, protracted legal battle hangs over journalists, editors and academics seeking to ask basic questions about the evidence for practices they believe may put people at risk."

Dr Singh added: "When people think about libel they tend to think about celebrities and tabloid exposures. But that is not what this is about. Celebrities have a reputation to defend and the media should not abuse that.

"However, right now people are being sued for writing about important scientific research. This is not salacious gossip, this is about matters of real public interest.

"Now is the time for the public to sit up and say we want to live in a society where free speech and responsible journalism is something that is valued. If they do then they need to sign up to the petition at www.libelreform.org/sign and put pressure on their MPs to support a change in the law. Politicians are open to this change right now."

Trick or Treatment: alternative medicine on trial, starts at 6.30pm on Monday, February 8, at The Lescar on Sharrowvale Road. Entry 2.

Dr David Clarke is senior lecturer in journalism at Sheffield Hallam University.

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