Simon-Aid 2009: The Momentum’s Growing!

Bit of a tight squeeze

A big turnout made for a bit of a tight squeeze!

Now that the very special mental fog that can only be created by too many pints of Guinness the night before has begun to lift I thought I’d write a review/summary of the support meeting for Simon Singh held yesterday in the Penderel Oak bar.

I imagine everyone reading this will already be all too aware of the background of this event but just in case here’s a very short summary of events:

Over a year ago a British science writer called Simon Singh wrote a critical article for the Guardian about chiropractic treatments. The British Chiropractic Association didn’t like what it said and so sued him for libel. A year later (last week) Simon received a disastrous decision at a preliminary hearing in which the judge decided that his article meant something he never intended and could not possibly defend in court. Having effectively lost the case before it began he was thus left with the choice to settle or to appeal the decision and try and get the judge’s decision overturned. Last night was an event to show support for Simon and to get an update about what he plans to do.

There are a tonne of sources that go into the case in much greater detail and the post just before this provides a rather substantial list of them so if the above summary doesn’t satisfy then go read some of them!

Now, onto the actual event.

The event was very well attended with probably a couple of hundred people all crammed into a basement bar which is somewhat remarkable given that it was only announced a few days ago. Hearty congratulations should be given to the organiser Jack-of-Kent as the event ran smoothly, kept to schedule and there was no indication that the whole affair had been frantically cobbled together in less than a week. 

Simon spoke last and was somewhat constrained in what he could say as the case is (obviously) still ongoing however he seemed to be genuinely effected by the support he was receiving and aside from expresing his gratitude he gave an update on what was going on with the case, discussed some of the ideas he and others had for utilising the support and as for his announcement… well, I’ll get to that.

As for the three talks by Dave Gorman, Nick Cohen and Dr. Evan Harris they deserve special attention as they were all excellent with each speaker raising many important points. They also managed to avoid being repetitive as they each approached the issue from a different angle which was somewhat suprising given the shared topic. 

Dave Gorman, the comedian and writer, went first and kicked off by sharing an amusing anecdote about a twitter follower calling Simon an arse. His talk barrelled on from there travelling at a hectic pace and was at once very amusing and suprisingly thoughtful.

Despite Dave’s repeated refrain that he was undoubtedly the least informed speaker there and had only become aware of the whole issue fairly recently he managed to raise some extremely important points (most of which are repeated on his recent blog entry titled Chiro-bullies) and also summarised very eloquently the frustration that the whole crowd felt at this whole legal fiasco.

For me the stand out points he made were 1) that science journalists are one group who really need to have the right to comment on the scientific evidence of medical treatments without fear of legal repurcussions and 2) the strange upside of the whole situation is that more people are learning about the problems of chiropractic medicine and UK’s insane libel laws.

This second point also bears dwelling on for a moment as in a way it encapsulated the message of the entire event. Dave Gorman related how he, like most people, had believed that chiropractors were a form of mainstream doctors that specialised in back problems and explained that it was only after hearing about this case that he looked into things in more detail and found out that chiropractic was a form of alternative medicine that claimed to treat alot more than back ache.

This was the main message behind Simon’s original article and after last night I strongly believe that due to the BCA’s libel case this is a message which is going to reach a much larger than audience than it would have originally. If they had just ignored the article or, god forbid, actually written a response discussing the ‘evidence’ for their claims then it’s very unlikely a popular comedian would be talking about the case in front of an audience of a few hundred Simon Singh supporters. But they didn’t, they chose to sue ‘to protect their reputation’ and as a result it seems they have done more damage to their reputation than Simon’s article alone ever could.

The second talk was by the journalist Nick Cohen (who has now also blogged about the event) and took a very different tack to Dave Gorman’s. Rather than focusing on Simon’s case in specific, Nick drew attention to the wider problems with the UK’s libel laws, highlighting how Simon’s case was not unique and was instead only the most recent victim in a string of truly appalling libel cases. He provided a litany of other heinous examples, with two notable examples being:

1) Roman Polanski, the famous director, who was convicted in America for having ‘unlawful sexual intercourse’ with a 13 year old girl and fled to France being allowed to sue for libel in the UK over a critical article written in vanity fair. The fact that he was a wanted fugitive in America meant he couldn’t appear in the court in the UK to testify as he would be extradited so he was permitted to testify from France via a video link.

2) Saudi Sheikh Khalid Bin Mahfouz sueing the American writer Rachel Ehrenfeld for libel for accusing him of having links to al-Qaeda after evidence emerged that his charity had been funding al-Qaeda. Also of note is that despite being heard in a UK court the book was never published outside of America but the Saudi sheik was allowed to bring the case as a few people in the UK had downloaded copies from the internet which apparently was enough to convince the UK courts they had jurisdiction. The Sheikh predictably won but as a result a bill was passed in New York effectively barring UK libel decisions from being upheld in that state.

There were other examples but even just the above two when added to Simon’s make it abundantly clear that the UK libel system is broken and it is in dire need of reform. Like Dave Gorman, Nick Cohen also argued that the appalling outcome for Simon was having some very positive effects in that it was clearly galvanising supporters and increasing awareness of the fundamental problems with the UK libel laws. On this point I fully agree as there was a tangible air of enthusiasm and desire for action amongst those assembled and from speaking to folks after the talks I got a real sense that Simon’s plight has really struck a nerve with a lot of people who feel strongly that the law needs to change.

Nick’s talk brought home powerfully the message that this was not an isolated incident and that the wider context needed to be bore in mind and this message was hammered home by the third speaker, the liberal democrat MP, Dr. Evan Harris. Evan’s talk focused on the importance of having free scientific discourse (without fear of legal cases) and the need for science to play an important role in government policies especially when it comes to issues of health. He also criticised the creeping perversion of the law being used as a weapon in scientific debates noting that Simon’s case sat alongside a number of similar cases such as drug companies trying to silence academic critics and so on. Like all the speakers Evan Harris also emphasised the importance of not letting the support generated by this case go to waste and urged for the momentum to be channeled into a serious campaign for reform… a sentiment which was widely shared and warmly received.

And then, after a brief introduction from the well known physicist Brian Cox, it was Simon Singh’s turn to give his announcement and here unfortunately there isn’t a whole lot to report. Essentially Simon wasn’t yet in a position to announce what he was going to do and as a result he had to give a sort of quasi-announcement that he was hoping to appeal but still had to further review his legal case with his lawyers. He also made the quasi-announcement that they were hoping to have a fund and probably a campaign of some sorts organised soon probably in collaboration with Sense About Science but that this was not quite ready yet.

It also seems that it might not be legally possible to establish a ‘fighting fund’ for the case and as a result donations may instead go to organise a resource that can help journalists and writers who are being threatened with libel for writing critical pieces. Simon was also quick to clarify that he did believe he had the means to defend the case himself and was commited to doing so if possible. So in essence the overall message was ‘watch this space’ and ‘thanks for all the support’. As far as the reaction to his announcement I think Jack-of-Kent summed it up best when he said “Simon, we’ll settle for you settling but we find the prospect of an appeal much more appealing”. 

With that said I think a more important achievement of the night was to bring a sense of cohesion to those supporting Simon’s fight and to give them a chance to hear from the man himself what was currently going on and what was planned for the future. As well as making everyone more aware of the larger picture of a more general need for libel law reform. It was also great to hear the messages of support from James Randi, Phil Plait and the JREF, Ben Goldacre, Richard Wiseman (who was also present) and Dave Morris (of the infamous McLibel case) which were read at the beginning of the event.

On top of that it was difficult to turn around without noticing a well known figure from the scientific or skeptical community and aside from those already mentioned also in attendance were the skeptical comedians Tim Minchin & Robin Ince, Alok Jha from the Guardian science podcast, arch legal skeptic Jack-of-Kent and Prof. Chris French Goldsmiths lecturer and editor of the Skeptic magazine. There were also folks from Sense About Science, New Scientist, New Humanist, Little Atoms podcast, Index on Censorship and a whole host of bloggers. So like I said the sense that this issue has become something of a rallying point for the skeptical and scientific community was hard to ignore.

Given the extremely disappointing result from last week to have such a positive event a week later is truly remarkable and I think it’s also very telling that there seems to be no similar sense of celebration of support emanating from the BCA. 

Finally, I think this event is a good illustration of the growing power of bloggers and the skeptical community and I urge all those who have been thinking about blogging or organising events or whatever to do it!

Last night made me realise that even my efforts at providing coverage on my obscure blog when combined with all the other bloggers who have commented on the issue really can help. Hopefully the momentum from this event can be sustained and we hear some good news from Simon in the coming few weeks.

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  1. Been following this closely. Sounded like a very productive event. Wish I could’ve made it.



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