BCA vs. Simon Singh: a letter to an MP, and the responses

Back in June, I wrote the following letter to my MP, and received a reply, also printed below.

I encourage anyone who is concerned about the chilling effect and consequences of the BCA’s libel case against Simon Singh to contact their Member of Parliament. MPs that are aware of this case, and are made aware that it is of concern to their constituents, will be much more likely to do something about it.

Representative democracy is responsive democracy, but MPs first need something to which they can respond. So, write!

Dear [M.P.],

I write to express my deep concern regarding the recent libel case brought by the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) against Simon Singh, and the implications for English libel law.

In 2008, Simon Singh wrote a comment piece in The Guardian newspaper on the evidence for and against chiropractic. The BCA took offense at one line in particular, on the lack of evidence for the use of chiropractic in treating babies. Simon Singh had recently written in depth about the evidence for chiropractic in his book ‘Trick or Treatment?’ and so knew well of which he spoke in the comment piece. He is, as am I, a scientist, and therefore is used to the scientific method: in the face of scrutiny or disbelief from our peers, we endeavour to defend our work on its merits and on the evidence. This is how science progresses, and it is how advances in medicine are made. It is how the public good is protected. Yet the BCA, rather than provide a robust defence of their practices and claims, chose instead to sue. What was an earnest comment, written in the public interest and for the public good, was pulled by The Guardian as soon as the writ was served.

The implications are profound. You are surely aware of the concerns that many have regarding English libel law, but with this case, English libel law has taken a turn down sinister new paths. For anyone considering writing about the evidence, or lack thereof, for a treatment, the threat of a libel action will have a chilling effect on that intention. The public good is poorly served when scientists or health professionals cannot write freely about evidence and fraud in medicine, for fear of damages and costs that can run into well over 100,000 pounds just for a preliminary hearing.

In the field of public health, it should not be open for any provider or promoter of treatment to sue for defamation in respect of their provision or promotion of those treatments*. There must be a balance between the rights of the individual to protection of reputation, and the rights of the public to hear discussion of the merits of treatments provided by said individual. Defendants should be protected by qualified privilege in such cases, as are journalists under the so-called “Reynolds Defence”, or we may see further erosion of the rights to free speech and comment in England.

I note that the Commons Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport has been considering libel law. I hope that by bringing this particular case to your attention you will be more aware of the serious and chilling directions that libel law has been taking, and will be able to offer whatever appropriate support you can toward moderating these tendencies. Additionally, the charity Sense About Science has been campaigning for a change in the law, and your colleagues Dennis MacShane, Michael Gove and Dr Evan Harris have put their names to a statement of support that you will find attached to this letter**.

Yours, [name here]

*{h/t to JoK}

** see here and here.

A few weeks later, I received the following reply.

Dear [me],

Thank you for your letter regarding the recent libel case brought by the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) against the journalist Simon Singh, and the implications for English libel law. I apologise for the short delay in responding. Your concerns about journalistic freedom of speech and the UK’s current libel law are duly noted.

Freedom of speech is essential in a functioning democracy and indeed is recognised in international and human rights law. The right to freedom of speech is particularly important to the media, which plays a special role as the bearer of the general right to freedom of expression for all.

I have therefore written to the Rt. Hon. Ben Bradshaw, Secretary of State at the Department of Culture, Media & Sport about this issue and have asked him to comment. I will let you know as soon as I receive a response.

In order to get the reply to you as quickly as possible, I may forward it to you directly. However, if there are any issues arising from the response which you wish to pursue further, please do not hesitate to let me know.

Thank you again for bringing this issue to my attention.

Best wishes,

[M.P.]

In August 2009, I received the following letter from Bridget Prentice, the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, to my Member of Parliament. He was good enough to forward it on.

From: Bridget Prentice MP. Parliamentary Under Secretary of State.

Thank you for your letter of 26 June to Ben Bradshaw at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, about a recent libel case brought against Mr Simon Singh. Your letter has been passed to this department and I am responding as the Minister responsible for civil justice issues.

As a Government Minister I am unable to comment on individual cases which are or have been before the courts. In that context, I understand that this case may be subject to appeal. However, it may be helpful if I begin by explaining the law in this area in general terms.

It is important that people have an effective right to redress through the law of libel where their reputation as been damaged as the result of the publication of defamatory material. Whether material is defamatory is a matter for the courts to determine based on all the relevant circumstances. The main tests established by the courts in determining whether material is defamatory are whether the words used “tend to lower the plaintiff in the estimation of right-thinking members of society generally”, “without justification or lawful excuse [are] calculated to injure the reputation of another, by exposing him to hatred, contempt, or ridicule”, or tend to make the claimant “be shunned and avoided and that without any moral discredit on [the claimant’s] part.”

Your constituent is concerned about the effects of the libel laws on freedom of speech. The Government firmly supports the right to freedom of expression, which is protected by Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). In addition, section 12 of the Human Rights Act 1998 requires courts to have particular regard to the importance of the right to freedom of expression, particularly in relation to freedom of the press. Of course, the exercise of this right carries with it duties and responsibilities that are expressly recognised in the law. It is not an absolute right, and can be restricted for a number of reasons set down by law, such as public safety, the prevention of crime, or respect for the rights or reputations of others. Often, the right to freedom of expression may need to be balanced against other rights, like the right to respect for private and family life, home and correspondence, which is protected by Article 8 of the ECHR.

As you may be aware, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee is currently conducting an inquiry into Press Standards, Privacy and Libel and is considering a wide range of issues in this area of law. The Justice Secretary gave evidence before the committee on 19 May and the Government will consider carefully any recommendations that the Committee may wish to make in its forthcoming report.

I hope you find this information helpful, and I enclose a copy of this letter for you to forward to your constituent, should you wish to do so.

Bridget Prentice.

Comments

One Response to “BCA vs. Simon Singh: a letter to an MP, and the responses”


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