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BCA v Singh The Story So Far 3 June 2009

Posted in News by Skepdude on June 4, 2009


By Simon Singh Main page

Simon Singh completed a BSc in physics and a PhD in particle physics at Cambridge University before becoming a director and producer in the BBC science department. He worked on Tomorrow’s World and Horizon and won a BAFTA for directing a documentary on the subject of Fermat’s Last Theorem. After leaving the BBC, he wrote a series of bestselling popular science books, such as “Fermat’s Last Theorem”, “The Code Book” and “Big Bang”. He has also presented several radio and TV programmes, and his educational initiatives include the Enigma Project and the Undergraduate Ambassadors Scheme. In 2003 he received an MBE for services to science education and communication.

I have remained fairly silent over the last year, ever since I received a letter from the British Chiropractic Association threatening legal action. This essay is an attempt to explain what has been happening over the last twelve months, why I have decided to apply to the Court of Appeal and what might happen in the future. I hope that bits of it are interesting, but in general this is my straightforward attempt to clarify a few points.

Back in 2006, I investigated the way in which homeopaths were recklessly offering homeopathic remedies as protection against malaria. This triggered a deeper interest in alternative therapies and eventually led to the publication of “Trick or Treatment?”, which I co-authored with Edzard Ernst, the world’s first professor of complementary medicine. In hindsight, it seems ironic that this book was subtitled “Alternative Medicine on Trial”.

When the book was published in April 2008, I wrote an article for The Guardian which focussed on chiropractic. The article also coincided with Chiropractic Awareness Week, which was organised by the British Chiropractic Association. The article discussed history of chiropractic and the founder’s belief that manipulating the spine could treat 95% of all diseases, because disease was supposedly caused by blockages in the flow of innate energy along the spine and through the nervous system. Many modern chiropractors have moved away from this fanciful model of disease and treatment, and instead have focussed on treating back problems. However, I pointed out that some chiropractors still believe that spinal manipulation can treat problems not related to the back.

In particular, I wrote about the likely risks of chiropractic treatment and whether or not there is any evidence that it is effective for various childhood conditions, including asthma. I thought it was quite an interesting, important and well-researched article, but unfortunately the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) claimed I had defamed their reputation and threatened to sue me for libel.

Initially The Guardian newspaper tried its best to settle the matter out of court by making what seemed to be a very generous offer. There was an opportunity for the BCA to write a 500 word response to my article to be published in The Guardian, allowing the BCA to present its evidence. There was also the offer of a clarification in the “Corrections and Clarifications” column, which would have pointed out: “The British Chiropractic have told us they have substantial evidence supporting the claim they make on their website that their members can help treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying. (Beware the spinal trap, page 26, April 19).”

Unfortunately, the BCA rejected these offers and moreover made it absolutely clear that it was not suing The Guardian, but rather it was suing me personally. At this point The Guardian newspaper chose to step back.

To a large extent I understand The Guardian’s position and its decision. At the time it was involved in several other legal battles and it felt that it could not justify the financial risk of becoming embroiled in defending one more libel action. If The Guardian had stood by me and shared the burden then it would lose whatever the outcome. For example, if we had fought the case and won then we would still be out of pocket (perhaps by as much as £50,000) as it would be unlikely that we would recover all our costs. On the other hand, if we lost the case then we could lose £500,000 or more. In other words, a good outcome would be bad, and a bad outcome would be catastrophically bad.

This highlights the dreadful problem in the English libel system. Even large publishers are intimidated by the huge expense of fighting a legal battle. This means that articles that should be defended are dropped, and articles that should be written are shelved before they are even published because of potential libel action.

I would be lying if I said that I was not disappointed by The Guardian’s decision, but I do appreciate that it is hard for it to justify becoming embroiled in a costly legal fight when first it is not the subject of the legal action and second it is having to cut costs and lay off journalists in a harsh economic climate. The Guardian has, in the past, stood up to many libel threats and has lobbied hard for reform of the libel laws. And Guardian journalists have expressed their support for my position. However, the sad conclusion is that major publishers are terrified of the English libel laws.

So, why did I fight on alone?



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