Last night was the Westminster Skeptics gathering in aid of Simon Singh support… so sympathetic are the skeptics to his situation (sued by snake-oil sellers) that we sojourned in the saloon, sipping spirits and swigging cider (hmm), saluting Simon’s superhuman strength. But enough of the alliterative nonsense.
Get the full audio from the main speakers from the Pod Delusion here.
Dave Gorman warmed up the crowd
NB/ some F-word usage at the start (for good effect)
He points out that the BCA, considering their job description, haven’t done a very good job of looking after chiropractic interests! Far more people are now critical of them than before. More people know what chiropractors are claiming to do and that it’s distinctly dodgy (uh-oh… let’s not do that again).
He observes that pro-homeopaths “like being renegades” – believing in “something outside science” and reiterates the BCA’s error.
To not take the right of reply… is to spectacularly miss an open goal
When asked why homeopathic products are on the shelves of their stores, Boots answer: ‘yeah, we know [there’s no evidence] but people want to buy it!’ So why did the BCA not say that? Why argue? They insisted it’s all about Simon lying about them. That ‘happily’ = ‘knowingly’. Would they rather the statement had read more like:
They honestly think this stuff works but it doesn’t and they’re stupid
So the BCA decided to sue Simon personally, not the Guardian. The only way that makes sense is that they thought suing author was a good idea because he’s less able to defend (there’s the bullying element). Apparently we’ll hear what their new position is in 1 week…
Dave asked for a hands-up: Who writes a blog? Who uses medicine? Who wants to know more than they did last year? It affects everyone who raises their hand.
It’s not about making libel inaccessible… the only people who can play are very wealthy
As has been said many times – when the only people able to defend themselves against ‘attacks’ are the richest, the law no longer works to protect reputations, but to allow to rich to remain so through silencing all, including fair, criticism.
Dave’s proposition: very rich people have nice cars. So let’s make the person with the nicest car in world a dictator. Or perhaps libel as a game of poker – someone goes all-in; can you afford it? Most people just have to fold.
Simon Singh took the floor
…receiving much applause, whoops and cheers and so on.
He points out that the campaign means we’ve gone from people who weren’t thinking about free spech at the first meeting last year to having representatives from every major party in the room.
First up is the representative for Labour (whose name I didn’t catch but see James Streetly & Alice in Galaxyland for more on this speaker) who congratulates everyone and states that the campaign has the party’s ‘full backing’, citing section 9:3 of their manifesto and describing the case costs as ‘scandalous’.
Next JackofKent introduces Joanne Cash for the Conservatives as the “strongest supporter of free speech“. Herself a libel barrister, Joanne reiterates the importance of commitment from politicians.
One choice line from the evening had to be:
Jack of Kent… is a fantastic force for good
She notes that this movement has come so far that the Lord Chief Justice has now intervened on the issue of free speech and the Reynolds defence.
Edit: today, we have this…
We will review and reform libel laws to protect freedom of speech, reduce costs and discourage libel tourism
– Tory manifesto, Page 79
For the Lib Dems, Dr Evan Harris
He reminds us that the libel laws have reached much further than cases like Simon’s. It has been blocking publication in peer-reviewed journals – the BMJ editor Fiona Godlee spoke at the mass lobby of parliament on the subject for that very reason. We must campaign for specifics from all the parties.
He points out that the Labour manifesto mentions ‘defendants‘, which is already a presumption.
From the Lib Dems:
1. “we are committed to a statutory public interest defence”
2. Specific protection for peer review – though the ‘special treatment’ of science could be debated further.
3. Stop Corporations from suing. Evan uses the examples of Trafigura, Barclay’s and TESCO and that there should be more burden on them to show damage/recklessness on the part of the libel defendant.
Also mentioned are the “value of blogosphere” and the “grassroots campaign” feel to the movement. We have gone from nowhere to being in all three manifestos in less than one year, but the battle is certainly not over.
Nick Cohen attacked the costs
The next wonderful sound-byte was:
I find myself being seduced by Evan Harris, which is rather scary
He recalls that the libel laws have been supporting oligarchs and privacy cases haven’t been no-win-no-fee because of the way superinjunctions have been used.
The model of the 20th century media… is so out of date… we need to protect that freedom the internet has given
This need to update law (and indeed government) in accordance with the way the internet has changed the media and how the public gets its information is now much talked-about – it was the last conversation I had with someone before leaving the pub, too.
Nick observes that it’s likely we’ll end up with a Tory government (!), since historically labour support has always been over-estimated. But… some of them are on our side (!!)
He also quotes a telling line from Gordon Brown’s “thug about Westminster”:
It’s libellous to accuse me of being a bully!
Jack of Kent had his say
He recalls that after Eady’s initial “horrendous” ruling, he thought…
How do we take this forward? We need to have a meeting in a pub!
And that this evening was reminiscent of the Blues Bros. with ‘the gang’ back together again (aww).
He cautions that not a lot has changed – following the preliminary ruling it is now safer for certain types of writer to write regarding the evidence for some claims. However, nothing has changed regarding libel tourism or costs and it is still easy to enforce the chill, getting posts pulled from websites and so on.
There might not be any more high-profile cases in science and libel but there is still much to be done.
Sile Lane adds that the whole affair has helped to expose cases that weren’t so well known; Goldacre vs. Rath, Wilmshurst, political bloggers on local councillors, patient groups on Alternative Medicine practices, GPs, medical editors, NGOs – the list was long. Her main point:
We need the public interest defence
All 3 parties are now committed but we must not let it be an election promise alone.
Questioning and criticising are cornerstones of science, medicine and democracy.
Padraig Reidy then mentioned his article on Sheikh Khalid bin Mahfouz, whose bank balance plus litigious nature caused Cambridge University Press to scrap a book that he had decided was defamatory to his (clearly fantastic) reputation. Padraig’s point here was that reporting this case felt very dangerous indeed – a personal example of the chill at work.
He says we cannot only talk about costs/defence, but we need a package and can’t get palmed-off with excuses essentially amounting to “It’s cheaper – now go away!” – we need the 10 points as set out by the Libel Reform Campaign specifically.
Someone asks is the campaign is taking an ‘extreme position’?
Padraig: No, it aims to make things fairer, giving easier access to justice.
I have never criticised David Eady … the problem is with libel law, not any particular judge
– Jack of Kent, pointing out that it’s too important an issue to make a scapegoat of any particular judge (Eady was not involved in the Trafigura case, for example).
It’s Bad Law, not bad judge! [But] Eady… unfit to be a judge in a democratic country
– Nick Cohen, going where JoK dared not!
He also emphasises that the libel laws have been failing to recognise when people who have no reputation to lose are suing – using the law designed to protect reputations.
The final comedy moment came when he asked,
How much has Simon clocked up so far? £200k?
and the instant answer came from behind the bar in the form of
as an utterly stunned barman dropped some glasses.
Next someone points out that many MPs are also lawyers; so why would they act against their own interests?
Padraig: the number wishing to protect their interests is outweighed by how many are signing the EDM.
Sile: there may in fact be more cases going to court post-reform. Fewer people would just keep quiet,if you knew you could defend and get the damages. People (including the butter-fingered barstaff) are scared by the costs and at the moment it’s not always clear what is defensible but common law could develop given enough cases to work with.
JoK: it would’ve been easier for simon to agree and give in – that’s why we’re here. More thunderous applause.
Simon: libel law is a little bit better but there is still bullying, libel tourism, 140-times higher expenses to go through with cases here in the UK – it’s still flawed.
And that’s why you need to sign the petition.