Friday 23 October 2009

Science against the law

'Science Fact: science journalism and libel law', City University, 15 October 2009

Britain’s arcane and archaic laws limiting freedom of speech hit the headlines last week when a court injunction prevented newspapers reporting on parliamentary questions about the involvement of oil trading corporation Trafigura in dumping toxic waste in the Ivory coast. The court order provoked a minor constitutional crisis, as it challenged parliamentary privilege (MPs in the House are the only people in the UK with unlimited free speech) and the long-established right to report on the House of Commons. The repressive effect of the libel laws has also been felt, with science writer Simon Singh being currently dragged through the courts for writing an article critical of scientific claims made by the British Chiropractic Association.

In this context of increasing confrontation between journalists and the courts, and to celebrate City University’s new masters course in science journalism, the University hosted a debate on the specific impact of the libel laws on the reporting of science, and assembled a prestigious panel of speakers to discuss the issue. Speaking first was Simon Singh, who spoke about his experience of being sued for libel, and the chilling effect that the threat of legal action was having on science journalism. He mentioned the case of Peter Wilmshurst, a consultant cardiologist who criticised a clinical trial he was involved in in an interview, only to be sued by the corporation backing the research for supposedly libelling them. He criticised the immense expense of fighting a libel case, the unfair balance which reverses the ‘innocent until proven guilty’ basis of the criminal law, and urged the case for reform.

Second up was Ben Goldacre, a medical doctor and author of the Bad Science column in the Guardian, who won a previous libel case from a vitamin salesman who claimed his products would cure AIDS. He argued that medical science is underpinned by criticism and argument; that it is possible to kill people on a ‘biblical’ scale through incorrect scientific understanding, and that continual reassessment of knowledge through open and robust dispute is absolutely essential. Tracy Brown from Sense About Science, who run a ‘Keep Libel Laws out of Science’ campaign, gave a number of examples of scientists and journalists who’ve had articles spiked or have been forced to self censor by the libel laws; protecting sub-standard scientific claims through legal mechanisms.

John Kampfner, formerly of the New Statesman and now of Index on Censorship, spoke about the science libel laws in the context of the broader attack on free speech. He mentioned the Trafigura case, the culture of taking offense and the practice of issuing byzantine gagging writs that prevent even the existence of the writ being reported. Finally, Duncan Lamont, a lawyer who has litigated in both sides of libel cases defended the existence of the laws, arguing that people need recourse when slandered in the press, and pointing out that despite Goldacre’s defence of the medical profession, doctors are often the biggest litigants.

But when the discussion opened up to the floor, Singh, Goldacre and Kampfner all backed away from the logical conclusion of their arguments. The discussion rapidly moved from how to fight against the libel laws to how they might be reformed most effectively; Singh began discussing how access needs to be cheapened so more people can sue. They missed the point that the problem with the libel laws isn’t their abuse by evil corporations, but the idea that the state has the right to regulate what we’re allowed to say. Also, there was an element of special pleading in the idea that science journalism should be made exempt from the libel laws: whilst it is completely correct that science needs open and honest debate, it could be argued that political speech needs greater protection. But despite these problems, it is encouraging to see such high profile figures defending their rights and making the argument that the public need to challenge these laws. These laws are a threat to free speech, and this beginning of a backlash against them needs to be supported.


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