Libel Laws, Simon Singh & Skeptical Activism

Skeptical Detectives

I first wrote about Simon Singh’s legal woes with the BCA back on the 30th March 2009. It’s now coming up to seven months later and with Simon we’ve been through one preliminary hearing, one refused written application for permission to appeal and now one ACCEPTED oral application for permission to appeal. The fact that it has taken over seven months just to get to a point where Simon has gained permission to question the validity of Eady’s (bogus) interpretation of the meaning of his article is a testament to just how time consuming and complex legal cases, and libel cases in particular, can be.

However, before slipping right back into depression over the UK’s libel law and their plentiful, and all too apparent, problems I think it is worth celebrating the fact that a judge, in this case Lord Justice Laws (what a name!), seemed in making his judgement to take due account of all the arguments and evidence that Eady so casually dismissed as irrelevant. At present it seems that the actual judgement has not been published, or if it has then it has not yet been presented and explained in detail to us non-law folk by the estimable Jack-of-Kent, however by all anecdotal accounts it seems that the judge considered a) the relevance of the surrounding paragraphs- the all important context and b) how it would be all but impossible for Simon to know or prove that an entire organisation was being deliberately dishonest.

This is just one judges opinion but I think it is an excellent illustration of the value of persistence and a clear indication that Eady’s interpretation of the meaning is not necessarily an interpretation that a different judge would have made. This is important because and vindicates the position that the case is worth pursuing not just for its symbolic value. Simon may still win and we may still see a court case that addresses the alleged ‘plethora’ of evidence for the BCA’s claims.

Meanwhile, the skeptical movement far from receiving another legal black eye has been propelled into the public spotlight, or at least closer to the spotlight than usual, and has also become remarkably energised. In the UK for instance, a new regular skeptical gathering- Westminster Skeptics– was launched in London complimenting the already significant presence of the various long running Skeptics in the Pub meetings and the Sense About Science campaign supporting Simon announced that it was preparing, along with a slew of other organisations like Index on Censorship, to begin a new and wider ranging campaign for libel reform.

The inaugural Westminster Skeptics event was also covered by newsnight which is surely a significant indicator that the issues with libel, illustrated so clearly by Simon’s case, are becoming a mainstream political issue. The strong sense of a positive energy, which I commented on before and I feel should be evident to anyone who attends events like Westminster Skeptics, also seems to have matured from a general sense of dissatisfaction and been effectively channelled into many forms of (mainly online) activism supporting Simon’s case and skepticism in general.

I don’t mean that everyone attending is out protesting about psychics in the evenings but more that they are commenting on and providing detailed analysis of various news stories and articles, submitting complaints to regulatory organisations (see Zeno’s blog and Simon Perry ‘s Adventures in Nonsense) and making others in the community aware interesting stories, events or information they come across. It is hard not to notice that there also does not seem to have been any sort of similar unifying effect amongst Chiropractors. Which raises the ever lingering point of just how counter productive this whole case has been if its real goal was to ‘protect the BCA’s reputation’.

In fact the only real response the BCA has offered is one or two articles and a few press releases. The most recent press release rather predictably hit back at the decision to grant Simon’s appeal with a statement that in line with all of its previous statements was almost entirely inaccurate. This one however had the added benefit of libelling Simon by accusing that he had ‘maliciously attacked’ the BCA in his Guardian article.

The wording was hastily changed after almost every skeptical blogger pointed out the implicit accusation it made but the rest of the response still stands as a testament to the BCA’s inability to accept that regardless of whether they admit it or not, it is quite clear to most observers that the case is related to freedom of speech and whether science writers should be free to criticise health treatments that lack evidence without fear of libel suits.

The case is still ongoing and no real legal victory has been achieved but things are definitely looking up and even if Simon eventually loses I think it is already evident that the skeptical community has been strengthened by this case and now has another excellent pub based event to boot!

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