UK Libel Laws, Scientific Criticism, Chilling Effects, Bloggers And The Streisand Effect

from the enough-for-you? dept

Well, here's a story that's got a bunch of different points worth highlighting. Back in July, Ben Goldacre wrote up an excellent article on the libel lawsuit against Simon Singh by the British Chiropractic Association (BCA), highlighting how a bunch of bloggers, rather than reporters, were doing much of the work exposing the BCA's questionable tactics. Why weren't those intrepid "only we can do investigative reporting" journalists taking on the issue? This week, the NY Times has an article by Olivia Judson explaining why: they're scared to death of being sued ,as well, thanks to draconian UK libel laws.

The background is that Singh, a well respected PhD. in physics, who has written a bunch of top selling "popular science" books, wrote an article for the Guardian, where he complained about some of the claims made by the BCA concerning what chiropractic care could help cure, noting that there was little (if any) evidence to support some of their claims. In response, the BCA has sued, and to date, the case has not gone well. It's already tough, because the UK laws greatly favor those who claim defamation (which is why there are worries about defamation tourism claims being made in the UK). Singh has had to spend quite a lot of money defending himself, and an early court ruling focused on the use of the word "bogus," which Singh clearly meant in the colloquial way, as meaning his opinion that there was no evidence in support of the claims. However, the court interpreted it to mean a factual statement accusing the BCA of deliberate dishonesty.

The case is still ongoing, but Judson highlights that many reporters are feeling the chilling effects, and are purposely avoiding certain scientific stories, for fear that their writing will lead them to a similar lawsuit. Both Judson and Goldacre note what a dangerous situation this is for basic scientific criticism, whereby it's a part of the process to question evidence and conclusions. In fact, it's good for everyone, because it leads to a more detailed exploration of the actual facts to come to a reasonable conclusion. But throwing libel law into the middle of that certainly has pretty massive chilling effects.

Except... for a bunch of bloggers who are more upset about those chilling effects than they are afraid of a libel charge. Goldacre covers how this group of "amateurs" have not only been picking apart (in great detail) certain claims by the BCA, they've also been able to pressure chiropractors to change some of their claims and start defending themselves on these issues. On top of that, they're helping to shine a lot more light on the whole situation, effectively using the "Streisand Effect" to call attention to the idea that the BCA is working to stifle criticism.

The whole story is quite fascinating for all of these reasons. There is a real problem with UK libel laws that needs to be dealt with. The chilling effects on reporting and scientific criticism -- especially in cases where people's health may actually be at stake -- are rather sickening. But, it's also illustrative of how an interested group of "amateurs" can certainly band together and take on a project, even in places where reporters fear to tread.

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  • icon
    ChurchHatesTucker (profile), 17 Sep 2009 @ 3:48pm

    I'd comment

    But I've already said too much...

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      HolaJohnny (profile), 17 Sep 2009 @ 8:26pm

      Re: I'd comment

      We all say too much but that is why this format and more honestly this site works. We come here to talk, debate, argue, and discuss depending on one's language. But that is why I feel there is so much value here. And no I say what many a commenter everywhere has said. Just my two cents.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Lawrence D'Oliveiro, 17 Sep 2009 @ 8:23pm

    Some People Are Aware Of At Least Some Of The Problems

    The Government might introduce a single-publication rule.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      AC's long lost brother, 18 Sep 2009 @ 7:16am

      Re: Some People Are Aware Of At Least Some Of The Problems

      But this doesn't address the real underlying problem. Great I can only get sued 1 time for 100 million Euro instead of 10,000 times for 10,000 euro, BUT the burden is still on me to prove my statements weren't defamatory.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Stephen, 20 Sep 2009 @ 7:55am


    I know English libel law is a bit messed up but it's oversimplified to say it's a case of "you need to prove your statements weren't defamatory." You need to contest the action, certainly, but the other side almost always (and we're talking in all but the most ridiculously obvious cases) need to prove defamation occurred in the first place. Then you get to hit back with a long list of defences that if you can say your comment falls under will kill the action. It's not just them standing up in court and saying "m'lud, so and so called me a bad word" and you losing your house if you can't disprove them, there is more to it than that.

    They need to show that the bad word you call them actually counts as defamation.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

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