Archive for Libel

Have you been threatened with legal action by “Scientists for Britain”?

Posted in Politics, Science Politics with tags , , , , , on April 3, 2016 by telescoper

Back in circulation after a short break I hope to write a few pieces about why I support the case for the United Kingdom to remain in the European Union, partly because it’s good for science, but also because it’s good for many other reasons.

But before I do that, I feel I have to do a quick post about the extremely unpleasant antics of an organization called “Scientists for Britain“, or rather the anonymous person or persons operating their Twitter feed.

Last Saturday I found myself in receipt of a message, apparently sent by this outfit, that explicitly threatened legal action on grounds of libel because of a comment I had made on one of their posts on Twitter which was alleged to be “disparaging”. I was refrained from referring the sender of this intentionally intimidatory message to the response given in Arkell versus Pressdram but it soon became clear that a number of other scientists on Twitter had received similar threats.Then, fortunately for us, in stepped renowned legal journalist David Allen Green, who blogs as Jack of Kent and is something of a specialist in libel law. He made it quite clear that the threats sent out by Scientists for Britain had no basis whatsoever in law, not least because you can’t libel an anonymous person. I hadn’t said anything even remotely actionable anyway.

Within hours, all the threatening messages had been deleted by Scientists for Britain, and they also blocked those of us to whom they had sent them in the first place, including myself. There are such things as screen grabs, however…

This social media car crash would be very funny were there not something very sinister behind it. I’m all for healthy robust and vigorous debate on the issue of the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union ahead of the forthcoming referendum, but bullying those you disagree with by means of threats of legal action is no way to make your case. Also, for the record, I will point out that I have seen no evidence that the anonymous operator of the Scientists for Britain Twitter feed, who delights in issuing unwarranted libel threats, is a actually scientist at all. I very much doubt that is the case, in fact. Why else would Scientists for Britain be so obsessive about their anonymity? Even their response to a letter signed by 150 Fellows of the Royal Society is unsigned….

I am posting this information here in an attempt to find out how many other scientists  Scientists for Britain have tried to silence through legal threats.  If this has happened to you, please let me know via email, Twitter, or via the comments box  of this blog (below).

If Scientists for Britain wish to comment they are welcome to do so below, although please note my comments policy: I do not accept postings from anonymous individuals.



How to reply to a libel threat…

Posted in History, Literature with tags , , , on October 19, 2011 by telescoper

A couple of days ago I bought a copy of Private Eye: The First 50 Years by Adam MacQueen, which I’ve been dipping into from time to time. This is in an  A-Z format that encourages one to sample rather than read straight through  like a history book. I think it’s excellent: not only great fun, with several “laugh-out-loud” passages, but also a very interesting piece of social history.

Last night I came across the book’s account of the famous episode of Arkell versus Pressdram , one of the Eye‘s many brushes with libel law, Pressdram being the name of the company that publishes said organ. I thought I’d post it here for those who haven’t heard of it because I find it quite inspirational. It’s actually been a while since anyone threatened me with a libel action but when that did happen, many moons ago, my response was similar in spirit (though not in form) to the memorable reply given by the Eye in the correspondence below (with, I might add, the same result):

Solicitor’s Letter to Private Eye:

We act for Mr Arkell who is Retail Credit Manager of Granada TV Rental Ltd.

His attention has been drawn to an article appearing in the issue of Private Eye dated 9th April 1971 on page 4. The statements made about Mr Arkell are entirely untrue and clearly highly defamatory.

We are therefore instructed to require from you immediately your proposals for dealing with the matter. Mr Arkell’s first concern is that there should be a full retraction at the earliest possible date in Private Eye and he will also want his costs paid. His attitude to damages will be governed by the nature of your reply.

Response from Private Eye:

We acknowledge your letter of 29th April referring to Mr J. Arkell.

We note that Mr Arkell’s attitude to damages will be governed by the nature of our reply and would therefore be grateful if you would inform us what his attitude to damages would be, were he to learn that the nature of our reply is as follows: fuck off.

No further letters were received from Mr Arkell’s solicitors. This legendary exchange of letters has now become a well-known in-joke for solicitors. So if you ever get a letter from a solicitor trying to frighten you with threats of libel, or simply want someone to fuck off for some other reason, I suggest you refer them to the Reply Given in Arkell versus Pressdram.

Singh Along

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , , on August 4, 2009 by telescoper

One of the nice things about the blog interface at  WordPress  is the way it flags up posts from other blogs that might be related to those on your own site. A good example is an item at a site which is quite new to me called Cubik’s Rube. This particular one alerted me to an update about the Simon Singh libel action which I’ve blogged about before, in a post that generated a great deal of debate and discussion.

If you recall, Singh is being sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association (BCA)  for damages after he labelled some of their treatments bogus in an article written in The Guardian. The newspaper settled and withdrew the piece from its website but Singh decided to fight the action. At a pre-trial hearing the judge ruled that his use of the word bogus would be interpreted as meaning that the therapies being offered by the BCA were not only worthless, but that the BCA  knew they were worthless. To win his case Singh would have to prove both these claims were true. Simon Singh claimed he never intended that meaning and vowed to appeal. That was the situation in June 2009, at the time of my previous post.

Things moved on a bit while I was away last week. In an order sealed on 30 July 2009 the Court of Appeal has refused Singh leave to appeal, thus piling the pressure even further on him to settle the action and restricting his options even further. For a clearer explanation of the legal issues involved than I could ever manage, see the article by famous legal blogger Jack of Kent.

One side issue is worth mentioning, however, which is that it is apparently unclear from a legal point of view whether the BCA has standing to sue for defamation at all since it is a corporation without shareholders. It seems strange that such a basic issue would be unresolved. Surely there must be relevant precedents?

Meanwhile the BCA has issued a conciliatory statement, implying that it would prefer for the case to be settled out of court. This seems a bit surprising given that they would appear to hold all the cards, but the answer probably lies in the appalling public relations gaffe it has made over its presentation of alleged evidence for its therapies.

Challenged (largely by bloggers) to present evidence for the effectiveness of its therapies for certain paediatric conditions (such as asthma, infantile colic and even bed-wetting), the BCA produced a report containing a “plethora” of evidence, dated 17th June 2009. This dossier – cobbled together from 19 research papers, most of which don’t really support their case at all – turns out to have been the epitome of dodginess and over the last few weeks it has been comprehensively dissected, discredited, debunked and demolished all over the blogosphere. A recent editorial in the British Medical Journal described its own refutation of the BCA’s claims to be “complete”.

I doubt if the BCA wants to see its credibility further undermined by having its so-called evidence savaged again in open court, which probably explains why they might prefer to settle than carry on the case. Nothing said in court can be subject to the libel laws.

But it’s an amazing blunder by the BCA to have presented such a shaky collection of evidence in the first place. All it has achieved is to make them look like fools.

Anyway, it’s now a peculiar situation. It still looks like Singh can’t win the case unless he can prove the BCA are dishonest rather than merely inept. And the BCA stands to fall even lower in public esteem if it goes to trial. If Singh can afford it he could fight on regardless and hope that if he loses the damages will be bearable. Morally, though, he will have won.

But the really impressive thing to me is the way that expert bloggers have forced the BCA into a corner. I think this is probably a sign of the way science is changing through use of the internet’s ability to communicate complex things so rapidly.

Simon Singh and the “Bogus” Issue

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , , , , , on June 25, 2009 by telescoper

This is an issue that I’ve been meaning to comment about for some time, but hadn’t done so because I really didn’t have a clear view on what opinion to express! I’ve now decided to chip in precisely for that reason, i.e. because I don’t think the matter is as clear as others appear to think.

The story will be familiar to many readers of the blog, so I’ll only give a quick recap of the salient points. Simon Singh is a popular science writer – a very good one, in fact – who recently  co-authored a book on alternative medicine called Trick or Treatment? with Professor Edzard Ernst of Exeter University. In that book they produced evidence showing that many “alternative” medical therapies including homeopathy, acupuncture and chiropractice  were, in fact, useless for the control of many conditions for which they are prescribed by the relevant specialists. Subsequent to the publication of this book, Singh wrote a piece in the Comment pages of the Guardian newspaper in which he specifically criticised the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) for claiming that its members could use spinal manipulation to treat children with colic, ear infections, asthma, sleeping and feeding conditions, and prolonged crying. Singh described these treatments as “bogus” and criticised the  BCA for “happily promoting” them.

The BCA decided to sue Simon Singh for libel. The Guardian removed the article from its web pages and encouraged Singh to settle out of court, offering to pay his legal expenses if he agreed to do so. He refused and decided to defend the libel action in court. At a preliminary hearing in May, the Judge, Mr Justice Eady,  ruled that the wording used by Singh implied that the BCA was being consciously dishonest. Singh has denied that he intended any such meaning.

This ruling – which is currently under appeal – effectively means that Singh has to prove that the BCA are consciously dishonest in order to win the libel case. That looks like a very tall order. He also has to pay the costs of the preliminary hearing, which amount to £23,000. If the matter goes to a full trial then he will be out of pocket to a much greater extent than this: a conservative estimate is that his legal costs alone will exceed £100,000, and there will be damages to pay on top of that.

This has become something of a cause célèbre owing, it is alleged, to the intrusion of the courts into matters of scientific debate. The organization Sense About Science has organized a petition (“to keep libel laws out of science”) which has attracted over 10,000 signatures. The issue that signatories are worried about is that the open cut-and-thrust of rational scientific debate will be stifled if a precedent is set that involves one party taking another to court. As they put it

Freedom to criticise and question in strong terms and without malice is the cornerstone of scientific argument and debate, whether in peer-reviewed journals, on websites or in newspapers, which have a right of reply for complainants. However, the libel laws and cases such as BCA v Singh have a chilling effect, which deters scientists, journalists and science writers from engaging in important disputes about the evidential base supporting products and practices. The libel laws discourage argument and debate and merely encourage the use of the courts to silence critics.

The case has also revived calls to reform Britain’s  laws on defamation, which make the defence of a libel action in the UK very difficult from a legal perspective compared to other jurisdictions because, roughly speaking, they place the burden of proof on the defendant not the plaintiff. It is also so expensive to pursue such an action through the courts that the system clearly favours the rich and powerful versus ordinary citizens.

The ruling by Sir David Eady has been singled out for disapproval in the print media and across the blogosphere as an example of how  British law stifles free speech.

So why am I unclear about this? Shouldn’t we keep libel laws out of science? Doesn’t the British law of libel need changing?

Of course I say “yes” to both of those. But it seems to me that the Simon Singh case isn’t really about those questions.

For a start, there is no way that you can regard a Comment article in a national newspaper as the proper place for scientific debate between qualified specialists. Such arguments can and do take place at scientific conferences, seminars and through the pages of learned journals. Simon Singh was not participating in this process when he wrote his article. He was doing something quite different: publicising his book.

Secondly, it is true that Simon Singh is a qualified scientist. He has a PhD in particle physics, in fact. But that does not in itself qualify him as competent to pronounce on issues relating to medical practice. I wouldn’t want to stop anyone stating their opinion about things that they’re interested in. It’s just that he doesn’t get a special ticket because he happened to get a science PhD. My point is that his article was not part of the cut-and-thrust of informed scientific debate between experts, merely an individual commenting on something. The fact that he’s a scientist should not give him a blanket exemption from having to obey the laws that apply to others, especially when he is talking about things outside his speciality. It’s also worth stating here that if what he’d said had clearly just been an opinion it would not have been subject to a libel case. The problem is that it appears to be a statement of fact from an authority on the matter.

Third, note that the original book – which is a proper scientific work in which arguments are presented with accompanying evidence – is not the subject of the libel action, just the newspaper article. The BCA is not using the libel laws to suppress or contest scientific evidence.

Now we come to the crux. Does Mr Justice Eady’s ruling really “defy logic” as many commentators have alleged? What does the word “bogus” actually mean? It seems sensible to turn to an authoritative source, the Oxford English Dictionary. Doing so, I find that the word “bogus” is actually of American origin. The first usage found in the OED is from 1827 where it appears as a noun, meaning “an apparatus used for making counterfeit coins”. Later on it is found as an adjective, with current meanings

Counterfeit, spurious, fictitious, sham: ‘originally applied to counterfeit coin’ (Webster).

It seems to me that since the preliminary hearing was specifically intended to give a ruling on the meaning of the words that had been used in the allegedly libellous document, Mr Justic Eady actually had no choice at all in deciding that the word meant what it did. Clearly “counterfeit” implies a deliberate misrepresentation. Effectively the ruling means that Singh’s words mean that the BCA are no better than Snake Oil salesmen, a defamatory statement if ever I heard one.

Singh has claimed that this was not what he meant by “bogus” and what he intended was something more like “unproved” but I don’t see how it can be an acceptable defence to claim that one’s words mean what you think and not what everyone else thinks. It didn’t work for Humpty Dumpty and it won’t work for Simon Singh. If I write that “Jones the Dentist is incompetent” then that will be libelous (if untrue) even if I later claim I thought that the word incompetent meant something different to what it everyone else thinks.

Truth is of course an acceptable defence against libel, but the “truth” at issue has now become not whether chiropractice is effective or ineffective (a scientific issue) but whether chiropractioners are consciously fraudulent. I’d be wholeheartedly against trying to settle the first question in the courts, but nobody is trying to suggest that. The second question seems to me one that has to be settled that way.

Now let me say that I don’t know anything at all about chiropractice. I don’t know whether it works or doesn’t work, but it does seem to me that Simon Singh was very unwise to use the word “bogus” and even unwiser still to defend the action after he did.

For me, the only really significant issue in this saga is a general one: the overall matter of freedom of speech. In general, I believe strongly in freedom of speech but because we don’t have a written constitution the right to it is not stated as clearly here in the United Kingdom as it is, for example, in the United States. However, don’t forget that there are defamation laws (including libel) in America too. Among those statements considered defamatory per se under US law are statements “injurious to another in their trade, business, or profession”, which certainly would cover chiropractors. The US system is much less plaintiff-friendly than ours, in that it provides for a wider range of potential defences, and it also largely reverses the burden of proof unless there is an affirmative defence. It does not seem obvious to me, though, that Singh would have any more success in defending his case in America rather than here. But, then, I’m not a lawyer.

Even in countries like the United States where Freedom of Speech is enshrined as a constitutional right, it is necessary that it should tempered by wider considerations. It should not be legal for someone to damage another person’s reputation and livelihood by making intentionally false and defamatory assertions. Neither should it be possible to abuse and/or threaten another in such a way as to cause harassment or intimidation. There have to be laws covering such things. The real question is how to make them work in a more impartial way than they do now. To argue that one should be exempted simply by declaring oneself to be a scientist seems to me to be dangerously simplistic. The best way to keep the libel laws out of science is to for scientists not to make potentially libelous statements if they don’t possess the evidence to back them up.

I realise that many of you may think that, in not fully supporting Simon Singh, I am being overtly pro-BCA. I certainly don’t intend to be so. I think there’s blame on both sides. I think that the BCA was unnecessarily aggressive in suing him for libel. Given that they did so, though, Singh seems to me to have made an error of judgement in continuing an action he is very unlikely to win. If he continues with the case now his only hope is that he can produce enough evidence in court that damages the BCA that they drop the action. In the long run, what will probably happen is that he loses the case and the BCA wins damages, but suffers a big dent in its reputation for rather heavy-handed tactics. Along the way it might even happen that there is intense scientific evaluation of the effectiveness of chiropractics, and that might do the BCA more harm than good. Bear in mind that anything said in court under oath is privileged can’t be subject to libel actions…