Back ‘cures’, a brave scientist and an epic court battle: How Britain’s libel laws are threatening free speech
With his round, John Lennon-style specs and nerdish good looks, physicist Simon Singh is an unlikely hero.
As one of the country’s most acclaimed science writers, he has spent much of his 45 years cloistered in his Home Counties study penning Number One bestsellers on mathematical conundrums, code-breaking and the Big Bang theory.
Turning his hand to alternative medicine, last year he published a book called Trick Or Treatment? that included a chapter on the history of chiropractic therapy (the manipulation of the spine to realign the back), which was invented by grocer and spiritual healer Daniel David Palmer in 1890s America.
Inspired by the ‘miraculous’ recovery of a deaf man whom he treated by manipulating or ‘racking’ his back, Palmer said that 95 per cent of all diseases are caused by trapped vertebrae.
Suddenly, the therapy (which takes its name from the Greek word for hand) became a near-religion, with Palmer boasting he was a successor to Christ and Mohammed. He even practised vigorous ‘racking’ on his own children, which led to him beingrrested and jailed for cruelty.
Palmer’s ideas caught on and, in 1925, the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) was set up and several clinics opened specialising in the treatment. Chiropractors were able, it seemed, to cure a myriad of ailments and began to broaden their therapies.
Recently, the association has said that even children suffering from colic, eating problems, ear infections and asthma can be helped.
However, many in the traditional medical profession view the therapy with deep suspicion. Though the General Medical Council and the Royal College of General Practitioners advocate its use – especially for back pain – some scientists say there is no evidence that chiropractic spinal manipulation is better than other forms of back massage.
This has led to widespread debate in the medical world, with some doctors refusing to refer patients to chiropractors, claiming the treatment does not work and can even cause harm.
In his book, Dr Singh questioned whether chiropractors could really achieve the results they claim. Later, in a column in the Guardian newspaper, he went further, saying the therapies for children were ‘bogus’.
Unsurprisingly, he came under an avalanche of criticism and the BCA demanded an apology and a retraction. When it received neither from Dr Singh, it decided to sue him personally for libel.
Dr Singh’s battle serves as a frightening example of what happens when a ruthless body tries to crush anyone who questions its power or expertise.
The ensuing row has also shone a light on English libel law, raising the question of whether it acts as a barrier to critical comment and public debate.
On Singh’s side are some of the country’s most illustrious and influential luminaries of science, the legal profession and showbusiness.
They include former Government chief scientist Sir David King, the geneticist Steve Jones, biologist Richard Dawkins, leading QC Baroness Kennedy, the actors Stephen Fry and Ricky Gervais, and comedian Harry Hill (a former doctor).
Pitted against them is the BCA, which won the preliminary round with a judgment last month in the Royal Courts of Justice by Mr Justice Eady, the country’s most senior libel judge, who is responsible for a series of controversial rulings.
Justice Eady’s critics accuse him of creating, almost single-handedly, a privacy law in Britain as a result of his interpretations of the 1998 Human Rights Act, in which he invariably seems to give more weight to privacy than to freedom of expression.