Monday, 18 May 2009
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I'm just back from a packed meeting in the Penderel's Oak pub in central London, where what must have been at least 200-300 people braved the smell of Wetherspoons burgers and a serious lack of space to turn out in support of science writer Simon Singh, who as you know is currently embroiled in a worrying libel battle with the British Chiropractic Association.
The breaking news from the meeting is that Simon, who spoke in front of the huge crowd, is hoping to appeal the preliminary ruling on the meaning of "bogus treatments" passed by Justice Eady on 7 May, but is not yet in a position to confirm this. He is still working on his response with his legal team, and hopes to be able to announce his next move by 28 May. What he was able to say at the meeting is that if he does mount an appeal it will have been in part influenced by the overwhelming support he has received from the public, who in addition to turning out this evening have signed up to internet groups in enormous numbers. While mounting an appeal is risky because he may lose, he gave three reasons why it is the right option - 1) he might win, 2) he wants his day in court to talk about what the Guardian article actually meant, and 3) most importantly this case is about broader issues than the validity of chiropractic - it is "about the need to be able to write about issues fairly and reasonably without being intimidated". It is something that matters for all journalists, and ties into the wider issues concerning British libel law. He ended by extending his thanks to the legal blogger Jack of Kent, who has supported him ever since this started and has provided some excellent coverage of the case.
Singh was the last to speak at the meeting, and before him we heard from a series of well-known defenders of free speech and rationalism. First up was comedian and broadcaster Dave Gorman (who has been speaking up for Simon on his blog) who told the crowd that if two professions should benefit from questioning, it's science and journalism. The idea of not being able to question something for which there is no evidence affects us all. An interesting point Dave made is that prior to hearing about Singh's plight he had no idea that chiropractic was an alternative therapy - he thought it was mainstream medicine, so at least people are learning that this is not the case because of the BCA case.
Next we heard from Nick Cohen, who elaborated on the fact that Singh's case forms a part of the wider problem - something he calls "the great under-recognised scandal of our time" - of the ability of English libel law to "stifle debate and stop good men and women asking difficult questions". He pointed out that this has impact beyond our shores, and cited examples of "libel tourism", most notably those of Roman Polanski suing Vanity Fair and Sheikh Khalid Bin Mahfouz suing the American writer Rachel Ehrenfeld for accusing him of links to al-Qaeda. Cohen said that libel is supposed to stop damage to the reputations of people of good character, but is being used for opposite ends - British law, through the internet, is claiming global jurisdiction and "dubious people are using it to silence people". He finished by saying he hopes Singh's case and the following it has attracted might just provide the impetus for a campaign to reform our outrageous libel laws, because "Britain should be a beacon of liberty, not liberty's enemy".
The last to speak, before the physicist Brian Cox introduced Singh, was Liberal Democrat MP and scientific campaigner Dr Evan Harris. He emphasised the need to ensure that science is evidence based, and that there is free scientific discourse. It is essential that strong language can be used to criticise what some powerful groups and individuals do. He said he hopes Singh fights on and that we get a big campaign around the case, as it has the potential to lead to a great victory for science and free discourse.