Current libel laws mean scientists ‘risk everything’

28 May 2010

Libel law in the UK and Ireland came under the spotlight last night at a talk in Trinity College Dublin’s Science Gallery, where Guardian journalist Simon Singh spoke about his experience with the UK court system as he successfully defended himself in a libel battle with the British Chiropractic Association.

Singh was one of four speakers at the Libel Chill talk that included lawyer Mark Lewis, currently defending cardiologist Peter Wilmhurst who is facing a libel action in an ongoing trial over comments he made to a US-based medical website about a medical trial in which he was the joint principal investigator.

“Scientists that challenge theories do so at the risk of losing their house, job and reputation,” said Lewis, who went on to say that this has the effect of stifling medical and scientific progress as scientists and researchers are afraid to speak out for fear of being sued.

He said that the ‘chilling effect’ of libel on investigative journalism had a ‘killing effect’ on scientists because without challenging current scientific methods and treatments there would be no progress and lives could be lost in the process.

He said that currently, libel law in the UK was such that if you throw enough money at a case you can force people to stop talking or to say what you want to hear.

Singh’s libel action from the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) was dropped on 15 April, marking the first of what his lawyer Robert Dougans said should be special protection for scientific debate.

Libel law in the UK is such that it is on average 100 times more expensive than most European countries. Dougans said that Ireland is the second-worst country in the world for libel laws, with the cost averaging out at 10 times more expensive than other countries.

Referencing a banned South Park episode, where a character portraying actor Tom Cruise says ‘I’ll sue you … in England,” Dougans said that if libel law doesn’t change we won’t just be living in a country where they are a joke but where we can’t even see the joke unless we illegally download it on the internet.