Election will not derail libel reform, says Simon Singh

Out-Law News | 09 Apr 2010 | 10:15 am | 2 min. read

Libel reform is likely to survive the general election, despite the shelving of Government plans to update the law, according to Simon Singh, the science writer who is taking a legal stand to defend scientists' free speech rights.

Singh is being sued by the British Chiropratcic Association (BCA) over comments made in The Guardian in 2008. The BCA claims that his article said that it was dishonest in promoting chiropractic for certain purposes.

Singh claims that he meant that the BCA was reckless rather than dishonest in claiming that it can cure non-spinal illnesses in children, and last week won the right at the Court of Appeal to defend the article as an expression of honest opinion rather than as statement of fact.

Singh told technology law podcast OUT-LAW Radio that he is defending the case because, as a best-selling author, he can afford to where many science writers or academics cannot.

Singh believes that despite Justice Secretary Jack Straw's recently announced plans to reform libel law being shelved in the run up to the general election, the main political parties will act on some kind of reform when a new government is formed.

"The Lib Dems are committed to radical libel reform. The Labour Government and Tory Opposition have made very encouraging sounds about libel reform," he said. "We'll have to see what their manifestos say in the next week. Now is the time to put pressure on them."

Singh said that more and more people are getting exercised about the issue and putting that pressure on politicians. He said that a petition at libelreform.org had gathered 45,000 signatures, and that this was at least in part down to the cases taken by people like him, Goldacre and Wilmshurst.

"The reason we've got reform on the agenda now is because scientists have started to complain. The public have said that we thought that libel was about celebrity gossip and the reputations of film stars," he said. "What we've demonstrated is that libel is also about the rich and powerful shutting up critics, it's about large corporations quashing criticism, it's about scientific debate being crushed by libel suits or threats of libel suits."

Singh said that this is having a very real and serious effect on publishing and comment.

"What you have is small [scientific] journals that are scared to publish academic papers because if they get sued for libel they could be bankrupted," he said. "You have journals that publish papers that are scared to retract them when they discover they are flawed because that could trigger a libel suit from the authors of the paper."

After last week's Court of Appeal ruling Singh has won the right to argue that his article was fair comment rather than an expression of fact. He must now argue that his opinion was justified.

Hear Simon Singh on OUT-LAW Radio

For a transcript and downloads, see: Simon Singh's libel crusade, OUT-LAW Radio, 08/04/2010

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