Simon Singh: libel laws need to change for the public good

Science writer Simon Singh has urged the public to sign a petition for reform of the libel laws, claming it was ‘too late’to help his own libel fight but that future generations needed greater protection from the draconian rules.

Singh wrote this morning that change to the current libel laws were needed for the sake of “future scientists, doctors, human rights journalists, biographers and anybody writing about matters of public interest”.

Writing in the Telegraph, Singh said his own case and that of British cardiologist Dr Peter Wilmshurst have helped spark a major campaign for libel reform.

The piece came ahead of Singh’s appeal court hearing this morning where he will fight the latest phase of a libel battle with the British Chiropractic Association that has trundled on for almost two years and cost him in excess of £100,000.

He wrote: ‘A libel case is so horrendously expensive that most writers, scientists and journalists cannot afford to defend their writing, even if they are convinced it is accurate and important.

‘These costs can easily run to over £1 million and are wholly disproportionate to the damages involved, which might be less than £10,000…

‘The second set of problems is linked to the fact that we have some of the most draconian libel laws in the democratic world, inasmuch as they are extremely hostile to writers.

‘Defendants are guilty until proved innocent, a reversal of normal practice. On the other hand, claimants do not even need to prove that they have been damaged in any way.

“Moreover, there is no robust public-interest defence. This sort of defence exists in many other countries to offer some level of protection for those who are writing about matters that are clearly important to the public.”

Singh is appealing against a High Court decision by Justice Eady after the judge rejected a defence of fair comment over an article Singh wrote for The Guardian in which he criticised the BCA.

Eady ruled that Singh’s article from April, 2008, amounted to a statement of fact rather than an expression of opinion.

The BCA alleges that the third paragraph of the piece suggested that it claims that chiropractic is effective in helping to treat a range of ailments in children, even though it knows that there is no evidence to support those claims, and that by making such claims it is knowingly supporting bogus treatments.

Singh’s cause has been taken up by a number of organisations, including the National Union of Journalists, which believes libel should be kept out of scientific debate and others that believe the UK’s libel laws are unfairly favour those bringing claims against individual writers and publishers.

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