Science writer Singh wins landmark libel case

1 Apr 2010

Simon Singh, the BAFTA award-winning director and presenter, and author of science books Fermat’s Last Theorem, The Code Book and Big Bang, has won a “resounding victory” in the English court of appeal in a libel case that threatened to stifle scientific debate.

Singh had been accused of libel by the British Chiropractic Association.

The case stemmed from an article he wrote in the Guardian newspaper about the ability of chiropractors to treat ailments such as ear infections and infant colic which resulted in him being sued for libel last year by the British Chiropractic Association (BCA)

Former Tomorrow’s World producer Singh, who was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) for his services to science, technology and engineering, wrote there was no evidence that chiropractors can treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, asthma, ear infections, and prolonged crying.

‘Bogus treatments’

Last year, Justice Eady at the UK’s Royal Court of Justice held that using the phrase “happily promotes bogus treatments” meant that he was stating as a matter of fact that the BCA was being dishonest in promoting chiropractic treatment of certain child ailments.

The ruling provoked a media storm, with coverage on Channel 4, in the Guardian, the Times, the Daily Mail, the Daily Telegraph and the Independent. The Wall Street Journal Europe cited the judgment as an example of how UK libel law “chills free speech”.

The ruling today, which cited Orwell and quoted Milton in defence of free speech, will allow Singh to rely on a “fair comment” defence of his statements about chiropractors, for which he is being sued.

The court overturned an earlier ruling which would have meant that Singh would have had to prove in court that his comments about chiropractors were factually correct in order to avoid a libel judgment.

Today’s ruling recognises Singh’s comments as a matter of opinion which did not imply the BCA was being consciously dishonest.

Speaking with last year, Singh said: “There is a concern about how libel laws can restrict scientific debates, especially if journalists are feeling intimidated about tackling subjects such as stem cell research, MMR vaccines or food additives.

“Science should be about challenging ideas without fear of malice or reprisal. As a society, we have to be able to do that. For journalists, whether writing about technology or science, they should be able to write about progress without being inhibited.”

By John Kennedy

Photo: Director, presenter and author Simon Singh

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years