Calls for libel law reform to protect evidence-based science

8 March 2010

The PHG Foundation has joined many other eminent UK-based organisations in signing up to the National Petition for Libel Reform seeking amendment of English libel law. Libel is when published or broadcast material claims or implies something about an individual or group that portrays them in a negative light, usually falsely.
The unusual legal position was highlighted in 2009 when the science writer Simon Singh was sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) after they took exception to comments made in a piece he wrote in the Guardian newspaper (see news article for more details) saying that BCA claims that chiropracty could treat a range of conditions such as ear infections and asthma were ‘bogus’ and unsupported by adequate scientific evidence. Of note, the BCA took legal action not against the newspaper but against the writer personally. Most individuals could not begin to defend such a case due to the very high expense of legal action, though in fact Simon Singh had both the means and the will to do so.
However, the petition was not solely occasioned by this dispute. Other cases are causing similar concern in the scientific and medical communities, particularly the phenomenon of large companies or associations choosing to take legal action for libel against individuals unlikely to be able to defend themselves. Another prominent example is that of consultant cardiologist Dr Peter Wilmshurst who is being sued by NMT Medical, after he suggested that one of their products (for which he was involved in a clinical trial) was flawed (see Times article).
It is feared that English libel law may be making it possible for financially well endowed groups to effectively silence scientific dissent about their own claims. The petition to reform the law to protect normal scientific debate has been organised by the charity Sense About Science; Managing Director Tracey Brown comments: Libel laws are not just a Fleet Street issue. We have heard from scientists, campaigners, writers, academics and patients that their discussions and publications are being shut down by the threat of libel action. Critical and open debates are vital in medicine and the public are badly missing out without them”.

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