England's scientific community fights back against libel onslaught

 

LONDON LETTER:Libel actions and threats of actions are crippling science, according to a Cork-born scientist who is helping to campaign for changes to libel laws, writes MARK HENNESSY

SÍLE LANE left University College Cork interested in the usefulness of stem cells in the fight against lung cancer, but she has ended up campaigning against English libel laws.

Raised in Ballinhassig, Co Cork, the quietly spoken but clearly determined Lane now runs the Keep Libel Out Of Sciencecampaign on behalf of a London-based charity Sense About Science, which warns that scientific free expression is being silenced by the threat of legal writs.

This week, she brought the campaign for change to a small, stiflingly hot fringe event at the Liberal Democrat conference in Bournemouth, before heading later this month to Brighton and Manchester to persuade Labour and the Conservatives.

For years, London has had the reputation for being the place to go to court if one wants to divorce, and fleece a partner while doing so. Less publicly, however, it has equally become to place to sue, or threaten to sue, scientists and those writing about scientists.

Simon Singh, best known for writing Fermat’s Last Theorem, is 18 months into a legal battle with the British Chiropractic Association, after he laid into chiropractors’ claims that they could treat colic, asthma and other conditions.

Not a jot of evidence exists to support such claims, Singh wrote in the Guardian, after he had co-written a book on alternative medicines, Trick or Treatment: Alternative Medicine on Trial, with Prof Edzard Ernst.

The Guardianoffered a right of reply. The chiropractors’ association refused, and then it went and sued Singh – but, interestingly, it decided not to sue the newspaper that carried his article for libel.

On its own it would, perhaps, matter little, bar the fact that the association is following the lead of powerful medical companies who are now resorting to the courts when unhappy with scientific criticisms of their products and practices.

Heart specialist Peter Wilmhurst faced an action from American medical devices company NMT Medical after he suggested in an internet blog that there were issues with the way medical trials for one of its products were written up.

The legal actions and threats of legal actions are crippling science, argues Sense About Science, backed by intellectuals such as Stephen Fry and Richard Dawkins.

Libel cases cost four times more to defend in the UK than they do in Ireland – the next most expensive country in the EU – and Ireland, in turn, is 10 times dearer than the next most expensive, Italy.

In England and Wales, a libel claim worth £75,000 (€83,000) could cost £4.5 million to defend, said the Oxford study, putting pressure on those receiving writs to apologise and pay compensation.

The libel laws are not just attractive to those living in England and Wales, but to others living abroad, since foreign-based plaintiffs can sue in London for something published anywhere in the world, a habit already dubbed “libel tourism”.

Sense About Science was set up in 2002 to combat what it viewed as “an anti-science atmosphere” in the United Kingdom, which, it argued, meant that a country that had once led the world in technological advances was now falling behind.

However, its interest in the effects of libel laws was stirred after the Singh case began to attract attention: “This has become a huge issue for us,” said Lane, who got a PhD in stem cell research from Imperial College after she left Cork.

“After we took it on we realised just what an awful state the English libel laws are in. States in the US are now moving to protect their citizens from being sued in an English court. This is just insane – it’s too easy for the rich and powerful,” she told The Irish Times.

No one in the scientific community is arguing that “people should be able to ride roughshod over the reputations of others”, Lane’s colleague, Dr Ben Goldacre, told the crowded Bournemouth meeting.

“[But] our libel laws are a serious public health problem, and not just to the United Kingdom. Ideas improve when they are subject to critical appraisal. It is possible to cause harm, even when one is trying to do good,” said Goldacre, who himself faced a writ.

Offering support, Stephen Fry said: “Freedom in politics, in thought and in speech followed the rise of empirical science which refused to take anything on trust, on faith, on hope or even on reason.

“When a powerful organisation tries to silence a man of Simon Singh’s reputation, then anyone who believes in science, fairness and the truth should rise in indignation,” said Fry, though it can be argued that chiropractors are hardly powerful.

The Liberal Democrats overwhelmingly backed reform, which Lane said was “a great step forward” in tackling the “chilling, stultifying effect” of English laws, though a long road lies ahead.

For Singh, who has, as he says himself, made some decent money from his popular science books, the case could cost him £250,000, if he eventually loses, but “£50,000 and two years of my life even if I win”.