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#SinghBCA: BCA speaks – why the ‘time is right’ to drop libel case against Simon Singh

Following this morning’s breaking news that the British Chiropractic Association has abandoned its libel case against Simon Singh after he won an appeal on meaning in the Court of Appeal in early April, we have received this statement from the BCA:

Having carefully considered its position in the light of the judgment of the Court of Appeal (1st April 2010), the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) has decided to discontinue its libel action against Simon Singh.

As previously made clear, the BCA brought the claim because it considered that Simon Singh had made a serious allegation against its reputation, namely, that the BCA promoted treatments that it knew to be “bogus”.

The Honourable Mr Justice Eady, the UK’s most experienced defamation judge, agreed with the BCA’s interpretation of the article and ruled that it made a serious factual allegation of dishonesty.

The Court of Appeal, in its recent judgement, has taken a very different view of the article. On its interpretation, the article did not make any factual allegation against the BCA at all; it was no more than an expression of ‘honest opinion’ by Simon Singh.

While it still considers that the article was defamatory of the BCA, the decision provides Dr Singh with a defence such that the BCA has taken the view that it should withdraw to avoid further legal costs being incurred by either side.

As those who have followed the publicity surrounding this case will know, Simon Singh has said publicly that he had never intended to suggest that the BCA had been dishonest. The BCA accepts this statement, which goes some way to vindicating its position.

The BCA takes seriously its duty and responsibilities to members and to chiropractic patients. The BCA has considered seeking leave to take this matter to the Supreme Court and has been advised there are strong grounds for appeal against the Court of Appeal judgment. However, while it was right to bring this claim at the outset, the BCA now feels that the time is right for the matter to draw to a close.

#SinghBCA: British Chiropractic Association drops libel case against Simon Singh

Breaking news: The British Chiropractic Association (BCA) has dropped its libel case against science writer Simon Singh.

From the Ely Place Chambers site:

The BCA today served a Notice of Discontinuance bringing to an end its ill-fated libel claim against Dr Simon Singh arising out of criticisms he made of its promotion of treatments for childhood ailments.

Dr Singh’s predicament as the sole defendant in an action brought in respect of a comment piece in the Guardian newspaper (to which the BCA  never directed any complaint) was seen as a rallying point for those concerned about the abuse of UK libel laws in connection with scientific debate.

Interest intensified when Eady J ruled that his words were not comment and that in order to defend himself he would have to prove the objective truth of what he wrote.

Earlier this month the Court of Appeal overturned that ruling and this has lead the BCA to abandon its claim.

Will sorting out the press help push through libel reform?

There was a central conflict at last night’s Frontline Club debate addressing English libel and privacy law and super-injunctions.

How do you relax legal mechanisms, while preventing tabloids and privacy-intruding publications reaping the benefits?

Echoing comments made by Mr Justice Eady in a talk at City University London last month, Carter-Ruck senior partner Nigel Tait claimed that super-injunctions were mainly used in celebrity privacy cases, to protect medical records and former lovers’ revelations, for example.

Carter-Ruck, he said, had issued about 12 injunctions in the past year (shockingly, no central record of the number issued exists).

To let up on these would be an invitation to the tabloids, seemed to be the implication.

David Leigh, head of investigations at the Guardian, finally put his finger on it: there is a problem in his own trade, he said, exemplified by the tabloid treatment of the McCanns.

“Unless we put the newspaper houses in order, it’s very difficult to move the debate about libel reform further forward,” he said.
“We’ve got to reform the newspapers.”

As he’s indicated in the past, Leigh believes self regulatory body the Press Complaints Commission to be “a fraud”.

A television producer in the audience added that he’d like to see a press complaints commission “worthy of its name”.

But science writer Dr Simon Singh, still fighting a legal action pursued by the British Chiropractic Association, doesn’t think this conflict needs to be a huge problem.

In fact, making libel law costs cheaper, he said, will allow more people to sue – forcing tabloids to think twice about the things they write about non-celebrities.

I spoke to  Simon Singh afterwards. He said:

“All of the changes we’re talking about do not affect an individual’s right to protect their reputation.”

“Nobody would want to encourage salacious gossip or tittle-tattle,” Singh said. Their reforms address statutory public interest, libel tourism and preventing big companies suing bloggers and individuals.

“If you drive down costs massively, what that means is that not only can celebrities sue to protect their reputation but that the ordinary man and woman in the street can sue to protect their reputations.

“We’re talking about extending justice and fairness to people, rather than making it an exclusive game for the rich and powerful.”

“At the moment a tabloid could defame an individual and perhaps take a risk that person wouldn’t be able to afford to fight back. If you drive down the costs massively, tabloids would actually have to think twice.”

Super-injunctions and libel reform at the Frontline Club (video)

Last night’s debate at the Frontline Club saw Carter-Ruck senior partner Nigel Tait (wearing a ‘Hated by the Guardian’ badge) go head to head with  science writer Simon Singh and the Guardian’s David Leigh.

Also joining them on the panel was David Hooper, a media law specialist and partner at Reynolds Porter Chamberlain and chair Clive Coleman, presenter of Radio 4’s Law in Action (and a former barrister).

Catch up with the debate here:

Highlights included Tait’s version of the Trafigura super-injunction versus Leigh’s; discussion around ‘libel tribunals’ to resolve cases more quickly and more cheaply; and a chance audience encounter between a film-maker who was sued and the very lawyer that sued her.

I spoke to Simon Singh afterwards about the ongoing libel case he’s fighting over a Guardian article published in 2008. Singh is celebrating a victory in the Court of Appeal to defend his article as fair comment, but the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) has not yet dropped its case.

“The case could carry on for another two years; they could go to Supreme Court,” he said. “I’m more than happy to discuss it in a trial, the statements I made in the article.”

“I’m much happier with the position it stands now, as opposed to two weeks ago.”

But he added, he’s annoyed and angry that it’s taken a couple of years and hundreds of thousands of pounds to decide the meaning of a couple of words.

Would he encourage others to stand up as he has? “I think that everyone has to make their own judgement…. You have got to be a little bit unhinged and wealthy to fight these. Most people aren’t that unhinged and aren’t necessarily that wealthy to fight them.”

“Except,” he adds, hesitantly, “the ruling two weeks ago was quite clear, the judges said: ‘we do not want to see scientists being hauled through the libel courts’.”

“My interpretation of their ruling is that the default defence will be one of comment, which immediately gives scientists and researchers a bit more confidence if they go to trial.”

#Singhbca: What will the British Chiropractic Association do next?

Last week, science writer Simon Singh celebrated his successful appeal in the Royal Courts of Justice, pleased that he could defend his claims about the British Chiropractic Association as “fair comment”. Singh was personally sued for libel by the BCA in July 2008 for a Guardian article alleging that the association “happily promotes bogus treatments”.

But despite the appeal ruling the BCA still hasn’t dropped its case. This week legal blogger Jack of Kent, aka lawyer Allen Green penned an open letter to the association, saying the time has come “to bring the claim against Simon Singh to an end”. An extract:

The claim should never have been brought, but one can see why the BCA hung on until the Court of Appeal decision. The BCA can still extract itself with some dignity now the procedural advantage has been lost. It really should take this opportunity to bring this wretched business to a close. The time has come to settle.

When Journalism.co.uk contacted the BCA spokesperson yesterday, we were told the association’s statement of 1 April still stood, with no further comment.

Following the High Court ruling Richard Brown, BCA president, said:

“We are of course disappointed to lose the appeal, but this is not the end of the road and we are considering whether to seek permission to appeal to the Supreme Court and subsequently proceed to trial. Our original argument remains that our reputation has been damaged. To reiterate, the BCA brought this claim only to uphold its good name and protect its reputation, honesty and integrity.”

Here’s that statement of 1 April in full:

BCA Statement 1st April 2010(5)

The Simon Singh appeal judgement in full

As reported on our main site, Simon Singh has successfully appealed the initial ruling on meaning of his Guardian article about the British Chiropractic Association, in the Royal Courts of Justice today. The new ruling determines that Singh can defend his writing as “fair comment” – rather than having to justify it as fact.

Via Index on Censorship, we’ve got the judgement in full (albeit a little wonky). We’ve embedded it on Scribd – see below:

Singh Judgement 1 April 2010 – Court of Appeal

In Mr Justice Eady’s court super injunctions and libel tourism are of little concern

Despite Mr Justice Eady’s little quips during his speech (about telling footballers apart in soft lighting, for example), the colour from last night’s speech at City University London came in the questions afterwards.

Heather Brooke proudly announced herself as a freedom of information campaigner and British-American. Whilst Eady professed himself an advocate of freedom of speech, his feelings about Americans had been less favourable – we often overlook the fact that we are not part of the United States, he jibed at one point.

When Eady finally located Brooke (“Sorry, the reason I was looking round the room was because I didn’t recognise you compared to the person who portrayed you on television”) he tackled her questions: why are super-injunctions not recorded publicly and what are the total libel costs that go through his court each year?

“Super-injunctions are something of an artificial construct, blown up by the media recently. I’d never heard the term till it was mentioned till a few months ago.

“I’m not conscious that I’ve ever granted one, though it’s conceivable I might have done.”

They were, on the whole, he claimed, used in celebrity blackmail cases to ensure the threatening party didn’t find out the nature of the injunction and run off to the newspapers.

“The trouble is when a judge grants an anonymous injunction, it’s recorded anonymously and you can’t find out the details.”

The only thing to be done, he said, is to invite judges over a period of time to list the number of the super injunctions they’ve granted, if they have done.

“One couldn’t break into the confidentiality of a particular case. I think you’d find it’s a tiny number. I might have done one or two in the past.”

On costs, he was equally unenlightening: solicitors come up with a fee he said, based on the number of hours. “Sometimes one suspects they may be over charging in the sense that more hours are spent handling documents than is strictly necessary, but it’s very difficult to establish that’s the case.”

While Eady had been to one or two training sessions with cost judges on keeping costs down, not much light had been thrown on the issue, he said. He had no statistics to offer: “Costs are huge, I’m sure of that”.

Scientific debate
On Simon Singh’s ongoing case, in which Eady ruled that Singh’s comments about the British Chiropractic Association were fact not comment (currently awaiting a Court of Appeal decision) he would not be drawn, following a question by Connie St Louis, who runs City University London’s new science journalism course.

“I don’t want to discuss a particular case. But the basic principle is pretty clear, in terms of scientific discussion and research, that there should be completely free and uninhibited communication between experts in the field and indeed the general public at large,” said Eady.

“The question arises whether or not, in a particular set of of circumstances, whether the boundary between comment and fact has been overstepped. That’s a very central issue in that case. I don’t want to get drawn into that because I’ve expressed my view in that case.”

“I don’t think there’s great danger for scientific investigation. Everyone accepts, I think, that freedom of communication is vital in that context.”

Libel tourism
On libel tourism,he was equally unconcerned, when asked a question by journalist James Ball.

“I would be interested to see the research on libel tourism, if there is any, because sitting where I do I don’t see an awful lot of it,” said Eady.

“By libel tourism, I think you mean people coming to this country with no connection to it, who have been libelled in it.”

If there is genuinely no connection between the claimant and the UK, then there is a mechanism to strike out the case, he said.

The facts are often exaggerated, he said, presumably in reference to the press accounts.

“Sometimes it’s said the person has no connection to this country, but in fact the person has strong business connections (….) As our law stands here, they’re entitled to sue in this country.”

No-one in the audience took up the Independent’s challenge to ask him about future plans, despite several dares via the Twitter conversation (which you can see at this link).

Simon Singh update: senior judge baffled by ‘artificiality’ of case

Science writer Simon Singh, who is currently being sued by the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) went to the court of appeal on Tuesday, to challenge an earlier ruling by Justice Eady.

Index on Censorship reported that Lord Chief Justice Lord Judge, England’s most senior judge, said he was “baffled” by the defamation suit – although his comments would not affect the judgement in the Court of Appeal.

Lord Chief Justice Lord Judge said he was “troubled” by the “artificiality” of the case. “The opportunities to put this right have not been taken,” Lord Judge said.

It’s argument of fact vs comment. If Singh’s claims are deemed “comment” in the Court of Appeal, he will secure the right to use a “fair comment” defence. A date has not been set for delivery of the appeal ruling, according to Index on Censorship.

“Fair comment” was an issue raised in yesterday’s Culture, Media and Sport select committee report: the Committee acknowledged “fears of the medical and science community are well-founded” and advised the government to “take account of these concerns in a review of the country’s libel laws, in particular the issue of fair comment in academic peer-reviewed publications”. But the Libel Reform campaign, a coalition between the organisations Sense About Science, Index on Censorship and English PEN, called for a fair comment defence available to everyone, not just in academic journals:

The campaign welcomes the Committee’s acceptance of the seriousness of the problem, especially in light of the recent Simon Singh and Ben Goldacre libel cases; but has raised “concerns that ghettoising fair comment in peer reviewed journals would not have helped Simon Singh in his libel case whatsoever, it’s important that a fair comment defence is available to everyone, not just for academic discussion out of the reach of ordinary people.”

Telegraph.co.uk: It’s too late for me, but libel laws must change, says Singh

Ahead of his Court of Appeal hearing today, Simon Singh sets out his reasons for why English and Welsh libel law should be reformed.

The first problem is clear. 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.

Singh, who is being sued by the British Chiropractic Association for an article he wrote for the Guardian in April 2008, will today challenge a ruling made on the case by Justice Eady – full details at this link.

Speaking about his own case and that of British cardiologist Dr Peter Wilmshurst, who is being sued for libel by an American corporation, Singh writes:

Dr Wilmshurst is not a scaremonger, but a doctor of the highest integrity who won the 2003 HealthWatch award for his courage in challenging misconduct in medical research. However, his reward this time has been a two-year legal battle that could bankrupt him.

When I asked why he bothered to fight on when it would be so much easier to back down and apologise, he replied: “If I fail to speak out then I am not doing my job as a doctor and I am breaking the Hippocratic Oath. I’d rather be sued for libel.”

Full article at this link…

Disclaimer: Journalism.co.uk has pledged its support to the ongoing Libel Reform campaign and petition, which is supporting Singh’s case.

Simon Singh goes to Court of Appeal

Science writer Simon Singh, who is currently being sued by the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) is going to court today to challenge Justice Eady’s earlier ruling on the case, made in May 2009.

It boils down to whether Singh’s article published in the Guardian in April 2008 about the effectiveness of chiropractic treatments for children, was comment (as Singh argues) or a statement of fact (as Eady first ruled), in the eyes of the law.

The Court of Appeal hearing – scheduled for 10:30am – “is a rare opportunity to clarify the right to ‘fair comment’, one of the few defences available in a libel action”, says the Libel Reform campaign, backed by the Sense About Science organisation, in a statement.

It said it will be “one of the most significant trials for free speech and science this year”, as Singh’s case goes before the Lord Chief Justice, the Master of the Rolls and Lord Justice Sedley.

Disclaimer: Journalism.co.uk has pledged its support to the ongoing Libel Reform campaign and petition.