Amy Jenkins: Set out to gag the press and you might end up choking The Independent April 3 2010
I never had a problem with chiropractors. In fact, I used their services occasionally. If I had a stiff back I’d go along to be “manipulated”. I liked the terrifying and satisfying crunch of bone against bone as they came in for the kill. I felt like I’d got my money’s worth.
But now that the British Chiropractic Association has pursued a personable science writer called Simon Singh, pictured below, through the courts, my view of chiropractors has changed somewhat. These days I’m lumping them in with the rest of the alternatives – and wondering how much they care about fact vs fiction.
On Thursday, after two years of legal tussling, the Court of Appeal finally laid out the rules of engagement in the Simon Singh case. This means that the actual trial may now begin – or not – depending on whether the BCA continues. It’s all this and £200,000 just to get on to the starting blocks. First, the courts needed to decide whether the word “bogus” – which Singh used with reference to claims that chiropractic treatments help children with asthma, colic and the like – meant that Singh thought the BCA was dishonest, or whether it simply meant that he thought the treatments ineffective.
In its judgment, the Court of Appeal said that compelling an author to prove what are essentially arguments and opinions invites the court to become a kind of “Orwellian ministry of truth”. It then went on to reference Galileo and the Inquisition. Libel laws are there to protect people’s reputations against false slurs. Disagreeing about the effectiveness of a chiropractic treatment is not a case for the libel courts.
The search for scientific truth should be left to the science professionals. That’s what they’re good at. That’s the whole point of peer review. Any scientist worth his salt publishes his findings and welcomes challenges. The BCA was offered a right to reply by The Guardian, which published Singh’s offending article. It declined.
Instead, with hurt feelings, it took Singh to court and claimed it had been called dishonest. As if that wasn’t injustice enough, Singh then had to contend with the parlous state of English libel law. First, the burden of proof lies too heavily on the defendant. Second, the costs are ruinous. Together this means that the vast majority of cases are settled out of court with an apology. Simon Singh chose to fight because he felt strongly about the chilling effect of our libel laws on free speech and – most importantly – because he could afford to. Most don’t have a choice.
Singh has made no secret of the fact that he’s suffered personally. He recently gave up his newspaper column, saying that while the financial costs of libel actions have been well documented, “the equally terrible cost in terms of time and stress is rarely mentioned”. I hope, therefore, that the formidable campaign that has rallied around his cause has been some comfort.
Singh’s friends and supporters form a kind of New Nerd Army and they’re a fabulous brigade. It all started with Skeptics in the Pub, apparently. These skeptics are argumentative types – scientists, IT consultants, journalists, comedians – who cram into a room above a pub once in a while, drink a lot of beer and debunk things generally. They especially hate God and questionable science.
They’re a resourceful lot. One of their nerdy number designed a computer program which hunted out any chiropractors who were making claims that might be of interest to the Advertising Standards Authority. The computer matched claims with names and addresses and local ASA offices and now a surprising number of chiropractors are said to be under investigation.
So our libel laws may be in desperate need of reform but is there a kind of natural justice operating here? They call it the Streisand effect. She tried to get a photo of her house taken off the internet and as a result the photo went viral. In a similar vein, the General Chiropractic Council has reportedly seen complaints against its members jump from 40 a year to 600. It’s a “chiropocalypse”.
Add to all this a joint campaign by free speech organisations English PEN, Sense about Science, and Index on Censorship and you have a formidable pressure group for libel reform. They’ve made recommendations which have been adopted by the Government – although a simple solution to the ruinous costs issue has now been blocked in the Lords and Commons by an alliance of parliamentarians including Michael Martin and Julie Kirkbride.
Those who dislike the worst aspects of the press fear that libel reform will give scoundrels free rein. The worthy McCanns are often cited. But the fact remains that our laws are needlessly draconian compared with other countries’. The Boston Globe and The New York Times have warned that they are considering stopping the sale of their publications in Britain. One day you might want to access their web content. Like someone in China, you will just get a blank page