Purely a figment of your imagination

What amuses, annoys, concerns or otherwise interests me – Noodlemaz

Libel Bullies

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Original post from last week, March 13th, but relevant with this story coming to light today*.


To support the libel reform campaign, it is Libel Week, culminating in the Big Libel Gig on Sunday (which I am excited to be attending – blog post later!). The Free Word Centre (together with INDEX on Censorship and English Pen) hosted an event on the 11th March entitled

“What You Don’t Get To See: Libel’s Impact on Documentary Film”

Three excellent speakers detailed how the UK’s libel laws have impacted on their desire to bring important truths to the public’s attention, thus affecting them personally (financially and psychologically) and seriously restricting the availability of information on issues such as health, the environment, finance and politics.

Indeed it was surprising when Tracy Worcester told us that film from disc B had to be shown over disc A, because if disc A were shown, the owners of the building could be sued. Also, later on, one speaker asked another to turn off their recorder (running to capture the session for their absent spouse) so that they did not have to worry about a permanent record of their statements.

The overwhelming take-home message was (and remains) that our libel laws are upside-down, back-to-front, protecting those with the biggest wallets and quashing criticisms ranging from perfectly reasonable up to absolutely essential. Libel laws should be about upholding reputations reasonably when they are under attack undeservedly.

Examples cited included Peter Wilmshurst vs. NMT Medical and Francisco Lacerda, also in attendance, vs. lie detector manufacturers. Closer to home, my own lab supervisor was threatened with legal action by AstraZeneca when she had this paper accepted for publication in Nature Medicine; essentially showing that anti-cancer drugs (integrin inhibitors) could actually be promoting tumour growth at intervals during the treatment regime due to actual dosage fluctuation (pharmacologists know about this) and advised caution in their use. This kind of research should never be silenced as it is essential for the provision of the best patient care.

“These laws are not protecting reputations, just big companies with money”

– Tracey Brown, Sense About Science

Surely, the most important thing is (or should be) that the public can access the truth, NOT that big corporations retain the right to hide it? As the chair said, it’s about the risk.

“… not saying things you know are true because it’s not worth the time and cost”

– Afua Hirsh

In the UK, when presented with a libel suit, you need the time and money to defend it, resulting in a huge amount of stress. You must prove that your claim wasn’t in fact libellous and even if you win the case it will cost tens to hundreds of thousands of pounds (and that’s ignoring the personal non-monetary costs). On the other hand, in the US, the burden of proof is on the subject of the alleged libellous statement to show that it is reputation-damaging, rather than assuming the defendant is guilty to begin with – contrary to how our courts are supposed to work. Theirs is a more sensible system.

More Examples

Christopher Hird has made an episode of Dispatches entitled “Cameron’s Money Men” – an uncomfortable (but also amusing) look at the serious subject of political party funding. The BBC’s insurance company ended up having to shell out £1.5million costs for a case that awarded just £1,000 in damages. So, it’s easy to see how the diversity of films being made can be affected by these laws; it’s ok if you’ve got a broadcasting giant behind you that has the resources to go through with such cases, but this means that TV is one of the few viable distribution methods.

* The episode was also to contain an investigation of Lord Ashcroft but judging by today’s story re: Panorama, perhaps we will never get to see it?

Then there is the case of Duncan Campbell, a journalist and film-maker who has devoted over two decades to exposing the truth, at great cost to himself. He nearly went to prison for breaking state secrecy laws, but told us that dealing with companies and individuals was even worse than the state since their campaigns are full of malice; spiteful suits brought with the assumption that any attack is purely personal (surely no one actually cares about the public??).

Of the many conflicts he has seen, he recalls in particular that of one ‘doctor’ and business partner who worked at London Bridge Hospital claiming to cure cancer and AIDS with bizarre, dangerous methods. The gist is here in his Independent article and was covered by Watchdog in 1979. One and a half years of hard work finally saw them struck off (along with at least 3 other nasty characters) but only 6 years later did the judge get bored and throw out their court case – the BBC spent £1m and much of Duncan’s time, energy and peace of mind was lost.

“It’s a case of ‘attrition’ – the letters and threats wear you down over time”

– Duncan Campbell

That pretty much matches the definition of bullying;

It comprises repeated acts over time that involves a real or perceived imbalance of power with the more powerful individual or group abusing those who are less powerful

– wiki

Our legal system is letting rich people & organisations, who are in the wrong, bully their critics into silence.

In 1989 Duncan published an article entitled ‘New Age Pill-Pushers’ in the Sunday Correspondent, dealing with the quacks who like to sell vitamin pills to desperate, ignorant individuals with the promise of recovery from very serious illnesses. That paper is now out of business due to the ensuing legal action (no pun intended), but Duncan sued back! The case is still hovering, as he found the Master of the Rolls had closed the books (no idea if my legal terminology is right here) back in 1999 but when asking if he could circulate his article online, finally, he is told no because the case might then be re-opened.

As usual, the major attack from said woo merchants is ‘he/she works for that big drug company, they don’t want people taking natural remedies!’ – why are the public so ready to trust these mad individuals over scientists? Why is distrust in science so rife? Is it because individuals, even if they are money-grabbing liars (I find it strange that Big Pharma is such a target when it’s clear that ‘alternative therapists’ are just as much out for themselves, if not moreso), seem more trustworthy than faceless companies? It is surely also because of our woefully inadequate science education, something that Prof. Brian Cox and affiliates are currently trying to address for the coming election.

People must be allowed to criticise what does not work, what is harmful, what is an out-and-out lie. It is a relief that Ben Goldacre won his case against Matthias Rath, who claimed to be able to cure AIDS with vitamin pills; but the facts that a) it cost so much money and b) Rath was able to bring the case in the first place… it is truly worrying.

We need to change these laws. http://www.libelreform.org/sign

Some more good links:

Robin Ince on Daily Politics trying to explain that it’s not a laughing matter – this one’s well worth the watch (8 mins!)
Listen to the PodDelusion here at about 33mins in for a clever change-the-libel-laws song!
BMJ editorial on why libel laws need reforming
BBC News coverage of Glasgow Skeptics in the Pub!
Nature Blog on Academic Freedom and the libel laws
Padraig Reidy’s Libel Week summary

Thanks again to Robert Sharp for his photos.

Hey, I’m in this one! Mr Christopher Hird speaking.
I giggled at flickr’s choice of “embiggen”. Reminds me of Jebediah Obadiah Zachariah Jedediah Springfield…
[Edit: I have been reliably informed that the verb is now in common usage in the US, less so here, and did originate with the Simpsons!!)

As a final example of the ‘chill’ effect, if you want to know what was said in more specific detail, ask! I took a lot of notes but I’m not going to write it all up here; I’m not that worried as my readership is currently non-existent but I don’t want to join the ranks of bloggers-being-sued retrospectively, so I’ve kept this fairly vague.


Author: noodlemaz

I prefer to think of myself as a realist rather than a pessimist, but perhaps that's just optimistic. Honest, atheist, scientist, feminist.

One thought on “Libel Bullies

  1. Pingback: Libel Reform update: 3 years on « Purely a figment of your imagination

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