Saturday, April 3, 2010

Singh When You're Winning

I've blogged a few times about the ongoing legal case involving science writer, Simon Singh and the British Chiropractic Association. (Here for example, but also here and on a few occasions since)

It's following that particular case that led me to get involved with the campaign for libel reform - which is why I spent one of my rare, mid-tour days off at the Houses of Parliament recently.

Simon's case has been running a long time now (it's almost a year since I went down to a pub in Holborn to speak in support of Simon and it had already been running for a long time then).

But April 1 was a big day for the case. I was spending the day travelling home from Llandudno but trying - when the phone reception on my North Walian train journey allowed it - to stay in touch with goings on at the Court of Appeal. The way it's been reported in some media you'd think it meant the case was all wrapped up and that Simon had won. It isn't. But it is now looking much more winnable because the appeal against the preliminary ruling on meaning has very much gone his way. Indeed it will be interesting to see how the BCA proceed as from this layman's point of view it's hard to see how they could win from here. But what do I know?

If you want to stay in touch with the case, I recommend the Jack of Kent blog for the best overview that's both legally precise and easily digested.

There's no point me trying to explain the latest situation when you can just scoot over there and get the lowdown. But I do find the latest statement from the BCA fascinating. You can see the full statement by their president, Richard Brown, here.

In brief what he's saying is, I think, that while they've been portrayed as enemies of free speech, their libel suit was never about trying to silence a critic it was always about defending their reputation.

The most confusing part of this to me is why Brown says
“Originally we asked Dr. Singh for a retraction and an apology and he declined. The Guardian subsequently offered a right of reply but this fell short of our expectations, not least of which because the original libel would have remained uncorrected."
Really? I mean, if it was just about an allegation of dishonesty (which the latest ruling has effectively made clear was not what the article actually meant) then what kind of apology would have been good enough for them?

Would an apology that said, "Some people who read my article might have been under the impression that I was describing the British Chiropractic Association as dishonest when in actual fact I was trying to suggest they are deluded. Because, while I understand that they honestly believe chiropractic is an effective treatment for colic, there doesn't appear to be any compelling evidence to suggest this is the case", say, have been good enough for them?

Maybe it would. But it seems doubtful, no? Surely accepting the right to reply would have been better. Surely an opportunity to persuade people to your point of view has to be better than simply removing someone else's opposing view?

And the idea that they're upset that people think they promote bogus treatments is the thing that confuses me most. Isn't a lack of evidence part of what defines Alternative Medicines? Isn't that why they're deemed 'alternative'? And isn't the word 'alternative' a badge they wear with pride? As many people have pointed out before me, if there was sufficient evidence to convince the medical profession of the efficacy of an alternative treatment it would cease to be alternative. It would be medicine.

So if you're an Association that represents, say, British Chiropractors, surely you start work each day aware that the evidence you find so compelling doesn't meet the standards required to convince, y'know, like scientists and, um, people who understand statistics and stuff.

In which case, wouldn't you just accept that there are people out there who disagree with you? I mean, isn't that actually a part of your USP. I thought part of what appealed to those who use alternative medicines was that it sat outside the mainstream, that those real doctors, those cynical squares with their insistence on boring proof meant they were just too closed off to even try to understand it... but that you, with your open minds and hearts were able to? Isn't that a part of it?

Because if it is, surely you'd relish people disagreeing with you. Every science writer penning an article dismissing what you do only serves to reinforce your position as outsiders. If, as a result, you're given the chance to put your case too then so much the better. The skeptics get to read the article they like and as a result you get to preach to your audience - the audience that likes the doctors-don't-believe-it-but-I've-seen-it-with-my-own-eyes-and-your-body-is-more-powerful-than-even-you-know kind of argument - too.

Surely you just accept that you're not going to persuade the cynics but by playing the hard put upon outsider you increase the appeal to your core customers.

Of course if I'm wrong and what they really crave is mainstream acceptance then surely that's an even more compelling reason to engage in debate instead of insisting that those who disagree with you shut up and say sorry.

There simply isn't a situation where filing for libel seems to serve their best interests. Either they get that their appeal lies in being outside the mainstream that they should portray themselves as open-minded-renegades in which case, every piece written against you is a good thing because it is likely to provide another chance to make your own case... or they want to be actual medicine... in which case it's time to play by the same rules, accept the rough and tumble of disagreement, accept the standards of evidence required and try to invest your time, energy (and funds) into meeting them.

Incidentally, whether or not the BCA decide to cut their losses here or continue to pursue the case... and whether or not Simon goes on to win or lose, it does nothing to really change the need for libel reform.

It shouldn't be forgotten that in fighting this case Simon is being extraordinarily courageous. Fighting this case has already cost him hundreds of thousands of pounds. Even if he wins, his chances of recovering all of his costs are slim to nil. How many other journalists would have this courage?

That's the real problem with the libel law as it stands. Imagine for a few seconds that Simon had not written the best-selling books that he has, that he didn't have the amazingly supportive family that he has or that he was simply cut from a less courageous cloth and you have a completely different scenario. In that situation, he apologises and the article is withdrawn. And the next person to write an article critical of the British Chiropractic Association finds nobody is willing to publish it because they know what the likely consequences will be.

It's all those unwritten or unpublished words that are the real issue. In the vast majority of cases, if someone sues you for libel it doesn't come down to whether you're right or wrong but whether you have deep enough pockets to even consider being able to defend yourself. It's a situation that allows the wealthy to silence the poor simply because the financial threat involved is so great.

On the day I went to parliament to lobby for libel reform I mentioned that I was doing so on twitter. Someone replied to me saying that it wasn't really relevant to them because they were poor. It's hard to know what to say to something that misses the point quite so spectacularly. This isn't a situation that only affects scientists and journalists. It affects all of us directly and indirectly. Because the news you read is important. Because the decisions you make about the medical treatment you and your loved ones undergo is important. And because the furthering of knowledge and pursuit of research is important. This isn't about one case - or any one field of knowledge - it's about all the stuff we don't know because someone wealthy has decided they'd rather you weren't told.

If you want to know more, I recommend spending some reading time at LibelReform.org. If you want evidence that this is relevant to you, read their report and see for yourself who is silenced. Whether it's one of the many embarrassing cases of libel tourism - like an Icelandic bank suing a Danish newspaper in London - because no other jurisdiction would entertain the case - or one of the cases where a large organisation tries to use it's bulk to silence the little fella - like Sheffield Wednesday suing users of an internet forum for essentially trivial comments - it seems obvious to me that something needs to be done about it. If you think so too, please sign the petition.

9 comments:

noodlemaz said...

Ooh, stole my blog title!! Cheeky ;)

Erin London said...

Excellent stuff. I went to the Big Libel gig just cos of the line-up and came away much better informed about this v important issue.

Chris Sexton said...

Excellent post - sums it up well. I find it particularly ironic that the statement from the BCA said that they did this to uphold its good
name and protect its reputation, honesty and integrity. Not sure that's been the result they've got. But, only because Simon had the courage to fight back.

Crispian Jago said...

For anyone who hasn't seen it, here's a useful little summary for younger readers:

http://crispian-jago.blogspot.com/2009/12/ladybird-book-of-chiropractic-treatment.html

Dr Aust said...

Well put, Dave.

As you allude to, Simon Singh has publicly stated many times, on the record, that he did not mean that the BCA or other chiropractors promoted therapies they knew (i.e. were clear in their mind) were bogus. The BCA could have dropped the lawsuit at any point and held a press conference to highlight Simon's statements to this effect. Indeed, many of us thought that that to do this was probably the point of their filing suit in the first place, and were amazed that they pursued Singh so vindictively.

It is the pursuit that has earned the BCA all the negative publicity, since it has given the widespread impression that they want Singh's head on a pole "as a warning to the others". The Appeal judges, despite the coded language, seemed to be rather of the same mind.

As to what happens now... In some ways, the BCA are now where Simon was after Eady's ruling - looking at a set-up where to win the case looks very difficult, and facing a large bill if they bail, but also facing the possibility that the bill will be much larger still if they press on.

Now, we already know what Simon decided. And therefore we know he is prepared to lose his own money on a point of principle, since he kept going when his lawyers almost certainly advised him to cut his losses and offer a limited apology.

The big question is, are the BCA prepared to do the same - that is, to risk losing even more money to stand up for a principle? Their statement says yes. But it will be their actions that really do the talking.

Anonymous said...

Nice picture of a CCTV camera with Simon Singh's haircut!

jimjim237 said...

"Nice picture of a CCTV camera with Simon Singh's haircut!"

Maybe Simon could sue for breach of copyright:)

Steve said...

What the BCA want is to have the public respectabilty and recognition of health care professionals without the requirement for evidence based medicine.

Anonymous said...

Case dropped by BCA, see http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/8621880.stm :-)