Tag Archives: Sense About Science

All we want for Christmas…is our MPs to back libel reform in the Queen’s Speech

Scientists, journal editors, community organisations and writers are asking everyone concerned about the impact of the libel laws on open discussions to let their MP know they want to see libel reform in the Queen’s Speech in May 2012.

This is something that I have written about a number of times: all of the undersigned have faced or been threatened with libel actions. Please help by contacting your MP (see TheyWorkForYou), signing the petition and spreading the libel reform message.

Dear Friends,

We are writing as people who have battled libel threats and actions to ask for your help to make sure reform of the laws gets into next year’s Queen’s Speech, which sets the legislative agenda for 2012.

People are still being threatened by a law that allows the rich and powerful to bully critics and shut down public debate. Libel reform needs urgent action. The campaign and all its supporters have worked hard to persuade the Ministry of Justice to draw up an effective Defamation Bill, but if it is not in the Queen’s Speech in the spring, then libel reform will be delayed for at least another year, which will be a victory for those who want to silence honest criticism. We can’t bear to let this opportunity slip away.

We know we will have to battle against those who want to delay or derail libel reform, and the best way to get our message across is to lobby MPs for support. Please help us by clicking here to send an email to your MP so they know that all we want for Christmas is our MPs to back the inclusion of libel reform in the Queen’s Speech.

Regards,

Simon Singh
Dr Ben Goldacre
Dr Peter Wilmshurst
Hardeep Singh
Dr Fiona Godlee, Editor in Chief, BMJ
Dr Philip Campbell, Editor in Chief, Nature
Justine Roberts, Founder and CEO, Mumsnet
Richard Dunstan, Social Policy Officer, Citizens Advice
David Osler, journalist
Professor David Colquhoun
Professor Francisco Lacerda
Rhys Morgan, blogger
John Gray, blogger

Keep libel laws out of science

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The struggle for Libel Reform

This week saw the publication of a hugely important report on libel reform in England and Wales. The report is from the Joint Committee on the Draft Defamation Bill, which has been considering the government’s proposed bill after oral and written evidence from interested parties. The proposed new legislation will be the first wholesale reform of the libel laws of England and Wales since 1843.

But why is this important for scientists? Increasingly, individuals and companies are using England’s outdated libel laws to suppress legitimate scientific debate and discovery. I wrote a report on the Libel Reform and Science session at this year’s Science Communication Conference. The sterling work of Sense About Science‘s Keep Libel Laws out of Science campaign (as part of the wider Libel Reform campaign) has raised the profile of the libel reform movement in the UK, but there is still a long way to go.

Please read this excellent summary of the report by Stephen Curry (who has written about libel reform numerous times before), as well as the press release from the Keep Libel Laws out of Science campaign.

Keep libel laws out of science

We should all be concerned about the current libel laws: please support the Libel Reform campaign and sign the petition.

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Libel Reform and Science

In May 2011, I attended my first Science Communication Conference, organised by the British Science Association. This annual two-day conference addresses the key issues facing science communicators in the UK and brings together people involved in public engagement.

SCC2011

This year’s theme was online engagement: exploring innovative uses of online media to engage the public with science, including discussions about social media, podcasting, gaming, virtual worlds and citizen science, including a public engagement activity close to my heart (I’m a Scientist, Get me out of here!). The speakers included Simon Singh discussing libel reform, Tim Radford on his career and experience as former science editor of the Guardian, as well as a panel session with Robert Winston and Kathy Sykes discussing their perspectives on the future of public engagement.

I was lucky enough to receive a bursary from the British Science Association to attend the conference; in return I was asked to write a report of the first day’s Libel Reform and Science session (I’ve added extra links and fixed some of my sloppy typos from the published report):

A Libel Reform and Science session at the 2011 Science Communication Conference? How do the English libel laws affect scientists across the world? Just ask Dr Simon Singh, who’s two-year battle with the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) cost him upwards of £500,000 when they sued for libel regarding an article he wrote in the Guardian in April 2008. Increasingly, individuals and companies are using England’s outdated libel laws to suppress legitimate scientific debate and discovery.

Simon Singh hosted this session with Sile Lane, who coordinates the Keep Libel Laws out of Science campaign led by Sense About Science (a charitable trust that equips people to make sense of scientific and medical claims in public discussion). Simon first presented an overview of libel and the key issues: defamation, protecting reputations, privacy, free speech (including “reckless” free speech, as well as the impact of the Human Rights Act 1988), plus the distinction between slander and libel: it is also possible to get sued for spoken material that is recorded live, such as a radio interview or conference talk. This is obviously an important issue for scientists and researchers. The law as it stands is very much in favour of the claimant: you do not currently need to show proof of damage; in essence there is a reverse burden of proof, you are guilty until you can prove you are correct (innocent!). Furthermore, it is horrendously expensive to defend yourself; in the majority of cases, people tend to settle early because of the prohibitive cost of going to trial. This has created the “chilling effect” of libel: many people are now scared of invoking a libel threat, providing an undesirable form of editorial control.

Simon also clarified that a company or organisation has the right to reputation and can sue to protect it (a primary example being his case with the BCA), which pits the significant resources of organisations against individuals. Legal Aid is theoretically possible for libel cases, but in practice appears hard to access. He cited the now-famous “McLibel” case, a lawsuit filed by the McDonald’s Corporation against two environmental activists over a pamphlet critical of the company. The case lasted ten years, making it the longest-running libel case in English history, and was only a partial libel victory for the “The McLibel Two” (although they later won damages against the UK government in the European Court of Human Rights).

Sile Lane then introduced the Keep Libel Laws out of Science campaign (as part of the wider Libel Reform campaign), which is working with English PEN and Index on Censorship to push libel reform in the UK. More than 60 societies and organisations are members, including scientific bodies, professional institutions, journals and lobby groups. Libel reform became an election issue at the 2010 UK general elections, with all major parties making manifesto pledges. She highlighted some key libel cases: Dr Ben Goldacre‘s three articles [1,2,3] in the Guardian regarding Matthias Rath‘s promotion of vitamin pills for the treatment of AIDS (nearly two years, overall cost £175,000); Professor David Colquhoun, a pharmacologist at UCL who was threatened by herbal and Chinese medicine practitioners due to a blog post; Dr Peter Wilmshurst, a consultant cardiologist who is in the fifth year of being sued by a medical devices company over remarks he made on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme (even though the company have since gone into administration); to the absurd: the parenting community website Mumsnet has had to pull down discussion posts about a certain childcare company due to threats of libel. At this stage, an interesting point of order was raised by a barrister in the audience: you need to be careful with using the terms innocent and guilty, as it is not a criminal case. They continued by agreeing that libel reform is important, but some of the problems discussed are wider problems with the entire English legal system.

Simon then gave an abbreviated history of his case with the BCA (more detailed history), highlighting some of the key issues. The case hinged on the following phrase in his article: “The BCA happily promote bogus therapies…“; did bogus mean deliberately fake? Did happily mean willingly? To Simon, it meant incompetent and dishonest: he cited claims by chiropractors of treating colic, asthma and other chronic illnesses with no scientific evidence to back up these claims. During the preliminary hearing, it appeared that an opinion ruling was easier to defend that a justification of fact or scientific evidence; when Simon’s statement was ruled to be a statement of fact and required Simon to prove dishonesty by the BCA, he seriously considered giving up the case. When the case finally went to appeal (at the third attempt, two years after the article was originally published), they finally agreed with Simon’s defence — it was the opinion of the three judges that if you are criticising a conclusion in a science article, it should be assumed it is a matter of opinion. Unfortunately, this decision was not binding and has yet to be tested, as the existing case law is still fuzzy. While this was a victory for Simon, he lost over a year of his life and financially it was a disaster.

So why is this relevant to all of us? Essentially we have now all become publishers, with this being especially worrying for bloggers. What do you do if you receive a threatening letter? Sense About Science provide an advice guide, but you should always obtain legal advice in the first instance. Due to the prohibitive cost of libel actions (anywhere from £200,000 to £1m) and the difficulty of obtaining Legal Aid, it is sad state of affairs that withdrawing the article from the public domain may be the easiest thing to do.

Simon finished the session by summarising the latest libel reform work with the draft Defamation Bill that was published in March 2011. We need new libel laws, but the balance has to be fair, serving both journalists and the general public. We must ask why the cost of defending a libel case in England is 140 times the European average and why 90% of cases are won by the claimant. The draft Bill is a good start, but needs to go further; there needs to be a stronger public interest defence (especially beyond investigative journalism, to cover blogging, etc), as well as a notion of “substantial and serious” — if you write something that is in the public interest and you are careful but make a genuine mistake, you should not have to receive the ultimate punishment. Libel tourism is an increasingly problem, with individuals and organisations with little apparent ties to the UK using this jurisdiction to silence their critics. The changing mode of publication in the digital age also needs to be considered: as it stands, every single download or viewing of a web article refreshes the one year defamation window. Furthermore, from a scientist’s perspective, it is important that peer reviewed research should come under qualified privilege. We should all be concerned about the libel laws and Simon and Sile finished the session by urging us to feedback during the Bill’s scrutiny period, as well as supporting the Libel Reform campaign and signing the national petition.

Libel reform

The full conference report for the 2011 Science Communication Conference is now available online, as well as a number of the presentations and supplementary resources, including relevant background reading. I attended the following sessions over the two days:

Day 1

Day 2

There were a number of active online discussions on the #SCC2011 hashtag over the two days, as well as the conference Twitter account (@SciCommConf): see the Storify for Day 1 and Day 2, as well as this tag cloud (with thanks to @clivebgs):

scc2011

A big thank you to the British Science Association for providing me with a bursary; I look forward to next year’s event (get involved Allan Pacey!).

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Sense About Science: Report Dodgy Science

Bad science is everywhere. Whether this is homeopaths claiming to be able to cure cancer, universities teaching “alternative” medicine alongside rigorous medical and science degrees, celebrities making misleading claims in the public sphere or even individuals and companies using England’s outdated libel laws to suppress legitimate scientific debate and discovery. While some of this is countered by the admirable work of people such as Ben Goldacre, David Colquhoun and Simon Singh, everyone needs to get involved by tackling misleading science wherever it manifests.

Sense About Science logo

Sense About Science is a charitable trust that equips people to make sense of scientific and medical claims in public discussion. With a database of over 5,000 scientists, from Nobel prize winners to postdocs and PhD students, they work in partnership with scientific bodies, research publishers, policy makers, the public and the media, to change public discussions about science and evidence. Through their award-winning public campaigns and publications, they share the tools of scientific thinking and scrutiny with everyone.

This week, Sense About Science are launching a new campaign to tackle misleading science claims more systematically: the Report Dodgy Science appeal. The aim of this appeal is to encourage people to highlight misleading claim and to take up more situations where the evidence is missing — whether because of distortion, political pressure, or vested interests intimidating people who try to put forward evidence. Sense About Science can then help people who contact them to take things up themselves, providing advice, encouragement and assistance from the specialist databas, as well as using your reports to identify problems that need action from them.

But this costs money. They urgently need the help of supporters to raise an initial fund of £8,000 by 22nd July to get this campaign ready alongside the new website launch. If you feel passionately about how science is reported in the media, the importance of independent scientific advice in the government or how free scientific debate is hindered by the current libel laws, please donate anything you can to this important campaign.

It is free to join Sense About Science (@senseaboutsci), as well as their Voice of Young Science (@voiceofyoungsci) programme, which encourages early-career researchers to play an active role in public debates about science.

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