World Federation of Science Journalists

It may be the dawn of a better day for science journalists in Britain – and even worldwide


November 17, 2010

– if accelerating developments over the past few months are any sign.

In March, an appeal court overturned a libel judgment against British science writer and TV producer Simon Singh. He had been sued by the British Chiropractic Association over a commentary published by The Guardian newspaper in 2008 in which Singh questioned claims by some chiropractors over the treatment of some childhood conditions, including asthma and colic.

The chiropractors organization dropped its lawsuit two weeks after the judgment.

When the newly elected British Parliament first met in May, the Queen’s Speech noted that “Legislation will be brought forward to restore freedoms and civil liberties,” and the Cabinet Office website included “reform of the libel laws to protect freedom of speech” as part of this agenda.

Because the wheels of Parliament grind slowly, the U.K.’s Libel Reform Campaign released a booklet in November – online and in hard copy – of libel-protection advice for journalists, bloggers and publishers. It was co-published by the Campaign (a group of journalists, scientists, NGOs and publishing houses headed by Sense About Science, English PEN and the Index on Censorship) and the World Federation of Science Journalists. What it offers are clearly outlined steps to take to squelch a libel action or handle it successfully if it persists.

That’s the good news. The bad news is Singh has spent close to £200,000 defending himself and “will never get it all back,” according to Sile Lane of Sense About Science. She says U.K. libel laws are skewed toward the person, organization or corporation that claims it has been defamed. Science journalists have been prominent among those who have been stung by the law.

As the pamphlet itself points out, “The libel laws of England and Wales are complicated, costly, and skewed in favour of claimants who can take a case on the flimsiest reasons. Reform of the Defamation Act 1996 is under consideration … [But] in the meantime the current laws make a threat of a libel action very frightening for online communities and writers, and liable to lead to withdrawal of material and silencing of discussion.”

The pamphlet makes the point that, “How you react in the first few weeks and months after you receive a threat is crucial in successfully deflecting an empty threat or making the best of a situation where you have made a mistake.

“There is no shame in settling if you and your lawyer feel that the time, stress and potential expense of fighting on just aren’t worth it. If so, be reassured that the real problem is with the legal system, and not with you.”

Lane says, “It’s very hard to find anyone who will defend the law as it stands. It’s too complicated and expensive for ordinary people to take or defend a case.”

Lane, who co-ordinates her NGO’s participation in the Libel Reform Campaign, points to what happened to an online forum for people suffering from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Some participants had tried a costly, unproven therapy not covered by the Britain’s National Health Service, concluded it was worthless, and said so online. They were threatened with a lawsuit and the forum had to take down that discussion.

“These people are already so vulnerable,” Lane said, and still had to face a basic “inequality of arms in the law, a law seemingly designed to be skewed toward the rich.”

In a 2007 case, two Swedish linguistic professors published an article in The International Journal of Speech Language and the Law. They investigated the technology of lie detectors, and concluded that there is no reliable evidence that they work. A lie detector company in Israel threatened to sue, and the publisher, based in the U.K., withdrew the article because it could not afford to go broke defending itself.

Natasha Loder, president of the Association of British Science Writers and science correspondent for The Economist, told the Libel Reform Campaign, “Censorship doesn’t start in the courtroom, it doesn’t start with the editor, it doesn’t start with the pen, it starts in the brain,” because of the difficulty and cost of defending a libel case.

As far back as 1948, the British Parliament’s Committee on the Law of Defamation concluded the law was, among other things, “unduly costly, unnecessarily complicated, … liable to stifle discussion upon matters of public interest, and favourable to “gold-digging plaintiffs.”

For starters, under British law, the burden of proof is on the person being sued – Singh had to prove he committed no libel. It was not up to the chiropractors to prove he had libelled them.

Pallab Ghosh, past-president of the World Federation of Science Journalists and BBC News science correspondent, said the ruling against Singh which was overturned by the appeal court would have made it difficult for any scientist or science journalist to question dubious claims made by companies or organizations without inviting a libel action that would be hard to win.

In recent years, foreign claimants have been bringing libel actions in English courts, often against defendants who are neither British citizens nor residents. This “libel tourism” has been encouraged by the Internet, which means something published online that can be accessed from the U.K. could be considered “published” there. So someone looking to squelch a scientific report it doesn’t like will choose a British court.

The United States Congress took this situation seriously enough to act on it. In August, President Barack Obama signed into law a new “Speech Act.” It makes libel judgments against American writers in foreign territories unenforceable if they are perceived to counter the First Amendment right to free speech in the U.S. Constitution. The bill’s sponsor, Congressman Steve Cohen, said “The United Kingdom has become the favoured destination for libel tourists.”

The Internet also means that the age-old time limit of one year for lawsuits against writers or publishers has become meaningless. British courts have ruled that the one-year limit begins again every time someone clicks on a website.

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