7. Fair Comment and Simon Singh’s case

Simon Singh’s case

In 2009, British science writer Simon Singh (author of The Big Bang, The Code Book: The Evolution of Secrecy from Mary, Queen of Scots to Quantum Cryptography and Fermat’s Last Theorem) criticised chiropractors for claiming that they could cure ear infections and asthma in children by doing spinal manipulations. The British Chiropractors Association sued him for libel. Singh was vindicated when the BCA withdrew from the appeal. The case has implications for freedom of speech in the UK, which had notoriously strict libel laws. Defendants in libel suits had to prove that their assertions were factually correct – a very difficult standard, which had the effect of inhibiting scientists, journalists and others from making comments. Since Simon Singh’s case, defendants will now only need to prove that their criticisms amounted to “honest opinion” or “fair comment”.

Simon Singh has since published Trick or Treatment: alternative medicine on trial, co-authored by Edzard Ernst, an analysis of the evidence for the effectiveness of a range of complementary and alternative medicines.

Vindication came at a price though. Singh’s legal costs amounted to £200,000, plus two years of lost earnings as a writer while he fought the case.

In a revealing comment about how the battle lines were dawn, the president of the BCA said:

“In using the case as a powerful vehicle to promote his Sense About Science campaign, Singh’s crusade mobilised a dark force of UK sceptics who suddenly found their raison d’etre, shifting their attention from the fairy tales of homeopathy to the cure-all claims of chiropractors. Following a call to action, an army of PC pilots and laptop lizards began a war which was to lead to one in three UK chiropractors facing formal disciplinary proceedings from its regulator, the General Chiropractic Council.”

Over 91% of the allegations against chiropractors were dismissed as being not proven.

In 2010, the Australian science magazine Cosmos published a report called “Free Speech is Not For Sale”. Cosmos has been a major supporter of Singh’s campaign.

Asked about Australia’s libel laws, Singh commented: “There’s a conflict between two interests, my right for free speech and your right to reputation – libel is about trying to balance those two competing interests. And I think Australia has got a pretty good balance.

It’s safe to say that Australia has made the big jump to a libel system that works in the 21st century and is fair. And England really needs to catch up.

If a journalist is reckless or malicious then they’re clearly in trouble and rightly so, but if you’re being honest and fair in your opinion then Australian libel law will not trip you up. English libel law is just stuck in the dark ages.”

Singh is also looking at how legal costs affect a person’s ability to act upon their right to freedom of speech. See:  http://simonsingh.net/2011/01/conditional-fee-agreements-cfas-and-libel/

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