May 10th, 2009
There’s a very depressing story that has been quietly unfolding in the news. You may have missed it, but if you’re a blogger, journalist or anyone who reports on health stories it’s vital you hear about it – and lend your support.
The story concerns writer Simon Singh who specialises in science reporting. In 2008 Simon wrote a column in The Guardian where he raised concerns about chiropractic medicine. He was subsequently sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association.
You might assume this is an isolated case and isn’t important. But it is important if you write about or broadcast health and related issues in any public arena. It’s very easy to believe that what you write will either be protected by whoever you are writing for, or that if you are writing your own blog or similar that what you say may not be noticed. Unfortunately Simon Singh’s case demonstrates pretty clearly that if an organisation dislikes what you say, they may take legal action against you, and once caught up in this process you may find it a costly experience. Not to mention a psychologically distressing and physically draining one.
It’s also tempting to assume if you are writing a critique about a health-related issue (whether that’s based on alternative or traditional practices) you can justify it as robust scientific debate, education, or awareness raising. Unfortunately these valid and important tenets are not enough to protect you should you find yourself being sued.
Last week Simon Singh was in court for a preliminary hearing of the libel case brought by CAM. While it was unclear how things might go, the outcome was not good for Singh. Legal whiz and blogger Jack of Kent has a thorough (but depressing) account of the hearing and reflections on what Simon Singh might do next. While over at Bad Science Ben Goldacre gives his take on this case (including some useful links to other blogs documenting and discussing this case and the issues it raises).
As you can see from the blogs above, this case undoubtedly raises numerous questions about British libel law. The problem is who wants to be a test case? Certainly if a trial goes your way you could end up vindicated and financially stable. But if things don’t work out as you planned you could end up in dire financial straits (not to mention the personal/psychological toll).
On occasion I’ve heard fellow bloggers and journalists claim they’d be willing to face legal action for a particular cause. Or since they’ve no cash there’d be no point in suing them as they have nothing to give up. Or since they’ve supported their claims with comments/evidence posted elsewhere they are immune from legal action. In fact I’ve also argued all those things at home with my partner when we’re having one of the occasionally unpleasant situations where someone threatens to sue me over something I’ve written. The problem is being well-intentioned, not being well-off, or restating what others have said are not enough to keep you safe if someone wants to take a pop at you.
Luckily for me I’ve never had someone carry out their legal threats, so I’ve not had to face the situation Simon Singh is in. But the very process of being threatened (which I’ve experienced three times) is highly unnerving, takes up a lot of time and has repercussions not just for you but for those around you. As my partner has reminded me on these occasions, my decision to write something that could result in legal action does not just affect me, but also our family, our home, and our financial security.
The problem with cases like Simon Singh’s (where a group has actually instigated legal action), or where you just hear about people being threatened is a chilling effect on health/science writers – particularly those who wish to raise issues about the effectiveness of therapy/treatment offered (be they alternative or traditional). It makes you think twice about whether you want to raise a particular issue, or be particularly forceful in any of your arguments.
Simon Singh has taken a brave stance and we will wait to hear what his next course of action will be. If you want to lend support and keep up to date with his case you can join this supporters group on Facebook. This also contains a full summary of this case and various blogs discussing it.
If you are writing about health/science I would strongly urge you to follow this case, learn what you can from it, and take the relevant precautions to protect yourself. This does not mean you do not expose problematic issues, just that you do so carefully and take legal advice if you are in any way concerned. The website Chilling Effects has some very useful information about writing online which is of particular use to bloggers.
I also hope you will lend your support to Simon Singh and be willing to stand up for free speech. If we cannot raise criticisms and questions about health and science without fear of legal reprisals we are facing a very bleak future indeed.Tweet