Simon Singh victory doesn't mean libel laws work
15 Apr 2010

This article first appeared  on liberty central

Simon Singh’s bogus journey has finally come to an end. Almost two years to the day since Singh first wrote an article in the Guardian questioning the claims made for spinal manipulation by the British Chiropractic Association, the organisation has dropped its libel case.

There is no way the BCA could have anticipated what would follow from bringing their claim against Singh. In the last year, Singh’s case has become a rallying point for free expression organisations such as Index on Censorship (who formed the libel reform coalition last December with Sense About Science and English PEN), scientists, bloggers, comics, and what Ian Sample described in the Guardian this week as a “rising army of sceptics“.

One in four British chiropractors is now under investigation by the General Chiropractic Council following a campaign by Singh’s sceptical supporters. Singh was brave in standing up to the BCA. But he was exemplary in insisting from day one that the case was not just about him. The absurdity of this case highlighted to many the injustices of English libel law, from the grossly inflated costs, to the utter inadequacy of our concepts of fair comment and public interest. In the court of appeal ruling handed down on 1 April, Lord Chief Justice Lord Judge emphasised that Singh had written an honest opinion, based on reasons, and suggested that this should be the future template for “fair comment” defences.

This is a day to celebrate for anyone interested in free expression in England and beyond. In fact, it has been an amazing week for libel reform campaigners: as the main political parties rolled out their manifestos, all three made commitments to libel reform. Meanwhile, the petition for reform passed 50,000 signatures.

What we should not imagine for one moment is that the BCA climbdown suggests that our libel laws work. The case has taken up masses of time and energy for all concerned. Meanwhile, NMT’s case against Peter Wilmshurt, another clear demonstration of the law meddling with medical science, rumbles on. And the solicitors’ letters keep turning up in the mailboxes of writers, bloggers and activists without the nerve or resources of Simon Singh.

Free expression in the UK remains threatened. Next week, the Libel Reform Coalition hosts a hustings at the Free Word Centre in London, where all three parties will be grilled on their commitment to free speech. Manifesto pledges are one thing; but we must continue to push for a genuine rethinking of UK citizens’ ability under the law to debate, argue and learn.

Padraig Reidy

Comments are closed.