I hope I’m not too late with this.
I was only just alerted to this post by Simon Perry, encouraging UK residents to write to their MP, asking them to get involved in the debate in parliament tomorrow on libel reform. He’s provided a suggested form letter to send; I’ve personalised mine, as shown below. He’s also given a link to this site called WriteToThem, which is designed to make it fantastically easy to write letters to your elected officials, even for incredibly lazy people like me who tend to get quickly put off this kind of thing when I realise it’s likely to involve effort on my part.
If you’re in the UK, this is really worth doing. You don’t need to have a clue who your MP is – I didn’t until half an hour ago – just put your postcode in, and it’ll give you a form with their details where you can say what you want and send it off. Feel free to use as much of mine as you like, though personalising it at least a bit may make it more likely to get noticed.
Hopefully we may hear something useful during the day tomorrow about what happens in the debate, if it moves in any interesting directions. I’ll be Twittering about it as and when I hear anything.
Dear Bob Neill,
Tomorrow there is a debate in parliament on the subject of libel reform.
You may have received a few messages about this already, as there has been a growing campaign in recent months to publicise the matter, and I was inspired to send this message myself based on a campaigner’s suggestion to send on a copy of his form letter to whoever my MP might be. But, as someone who tends to be somewhat cynical about politics (or at least British politics), and about my own chances of being able to effect any significant change, even I’m feeling motivated by this issue to send a personal message, and hope that I’ll find reason to get more involved in our political system in the future, and see it with more generous optimism.
Popular science writer Simon Singh is currently being sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association. In an article in the Guardian, he discussed the history of chiropractic therapy, pointed out (accurately) that there is “not a jot” of evidence supporting its effectiveness in treating certain conditions, and pointed out that the BCA currently “happily promotes” these “bogus treatments”.
The treatments to which he referred *are* bogus, in that no good controlled clinical trials have shown them to have any effect beyond that of a placebo. The BCA *does* promote them, and they certainly don’t seem to be *un*happy about it. Simon’s criticism seems to be an important and valid part of the public discussion of science-based medicine. The BCA sued him personally for libel, and declined the right of reply they were offered by the Guardian, where they could have publicly put forward their own view and presented any evidence they believe supports their position.
A couple of weeks ago, the front page of the Sunday Express proclaimed that the cervical cancer vaccine was “as deadly as the cancer”. This scare-mongering article entirely misrepresented the views of the scientists quoted, and was far, far more misleading, damaging to the public understanding of medicine, and dangerous to people’s lives and livelihoods, than what Simon Singh’s article said. But nobody’s around to sue the Sunday Express on behalf of reality.
The way English libel laws currently exist, undesirable opinions or dissenting views can so easily be suppressed by the act of simply threatening a lawsuit. It is up to the defendant to prove their innocence in such cases, and the amount this can cost in time and money can be utterly crippling, even if you did nothing wrong and win the case. Medical doctor and journalist Ben Goldacre was recently involved in a libel battle following his criticism of a vitamin salesman, who claimed that anti-retroviral drugs were ineffective in treating AIDS and offered his vitamins as an alternative. Goldacre won the case, his criticism of Matthias Rath’s appalling dishonesty was entirely justified, the scientific facts always supported him entirely, and he was clearly acting in the public interest in trying to counter pseudo-scientific nonsense and help stop snake oil merchants from taking advantage of dying people who need real medicine. He won, and they still came out of it £150,000 poorer.
Given the dismal outcome likely even in the case of an outright victory, many important articles and papers simply aren’t being published due to this fear. Obviously libel laws of some form have a place, but the way it stands now, the English libel system is uniquely repressive, and is becoming a global embarrassment. Our ability to do useful science, and evaluate what medical treatments are of any use in helping people, depends on the kind of debate which our libel laws are presently stifling.
As someone who has been a constituent here for several years, I’m asking you to please help push this issue forward, and help get some laws in place which aren’t so catastrophically detrimental to free expression in this country.