Thursday, April 1, 2010

Now you can't sue me

Well, almost. You can sue me, but your chances of winning have considerably diminished. In a landmark ruling yesterday, the British Court of Appeals ruled in favour of the science writer Simon Singh in the libel case brought against him by the British Chiropractic Association (BCA).

Simon Singh is a British science writer. In a column in The Guardian in April 2008, Simon Singh criticized the BCA making these comments

“You might think that modern chiropractors restrict themselves to treating back problems, but in fact they still possess some quite wacky ideas. The fundamentalists argue that they can cure anything. And even the more moderate chiropractors have ideas above their station. The British Chiropractic Association claims that their members can help treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying, even though there is not a jot of evidence. This organisation is the respectable face of the chiropractic profession and yet it happily promotes bogus treatments”

The BCA objected to this. The Guardian offered them the chance to write a rebuttal. They refused this and instead brought a libel suit against Simon Singh.

To any sane man, this libel suit is strange, at best. However the British libel laws, being what they are, apparently the burden of proof rested with the defendant. If I say that in my opinion you are an ass, then it means that I am implying that factually you are an ass and if you bring a libel suit against me, its up to me to prove that you are indeed an ass. The original court upheld that an opinion Simon Singh expressed, was actually an implied statement of fact . He went on appeal and has now won. But in the process his career as a writer has been ruined and he has been financially compromised - having to spend some ₤200,000 in legal costs, although others have contributed. And the story is not over. The BCA has threatened to appeal against the current ruling.

Apparently hundreds of cases are brought against people expressing opinions that somebody does not like. Faced with ruinous legal costs of defending, they simply capitulate, back down and censor themselves. Somewhat similar to the strong arm tactics employed by a number of gentlemen sharing the surname Thackeray.

A significant angle to the libel laws in the UK is that it promotes “libel tourism”. It does not matter if you live in some other country and publish something there. If it was capable of being read in the UK, you can bring a libel suit in the UK. The community it affects the most are bloggers. If a blog is capable of being downloaded in the UK, then the libel case can be brought in the UK. With such libel laws, the UK has become the capital for libel tourism.

This is actually a strange position. Anybody even remotely familiar with the UK knows that its newspapers hit abysmal lows every day in scandals and sleazy journalism. And yet it seems to have the toughest libel laws around. I simply don’t understand this.

This blogger is notorious for being highly opinionated and expressing them freely, sometimes passing them off as fact. For example, here’s a tip for Gils. A few days ago, this blog featured some comments about his sartorial colour preferences. He has every right to claim to have been libeled. Now this blog is definitely capable of being read in the UK, although nobody really does. However there is at least one reader who has commented here in the past and she lives in the UK – clear proof that what is written can have ramifications in Her Majesty’s land. So the logical course of action for Gils would have been to sue me in a British Court for libel. Unfortunately he is a bit too late – he should have done so last week !!

Bloggers beware !!