Victory for science writer Singh in libel case

15 Apr 2010

BAFTA-winning filmmaker, author and science writer Simon Singh has emerged victorious from a libel battle which cost him more than stg£100,000 to fight.

The British Chiropractic Association today dropped its libel claim against Singh, two weeks after a landmark judgment by the Court of Appeal which ruled the author could use the defence of fair comment.

“The BCA today served a Notice of Discontinuance bringing to an end its ill-fated libel claim against Dr Simon Singh arising out of criticisms he made of its promotion of treatments for childhood ailments,” said Ely Place Chambers, the firm acting for Singh, in a statement.

Former Tomorrow’s World producer Singh is the author of science books Fermat’s Last Theorem, The Code Book and Big Bang.

The beginning of the libel case

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).

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, asthma, ear infections, prolonged crying and sleeping and feeding problems.

Last year, Justice Eady at the UK’s Royal Court of Justice held that using the phrase “happily promotes bogus treatments” meant 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”.

 Singh’s solicitors stated today: “Dr Singh’s predicament as the sole defendant in an action brought in respect of a comment piece in The Guardian newspaper (to which the BCA never directed any complaint) was seen as a rallying point for those concerned about the abuse of UK libel laws in connection with scientific debate.

“Interest intensified when Eady J ruled that his words were not comment and that in order to defend himself he would have to prove the objective truth of what he wrote. Earlier this month, the Court of Appeal overturned that ruling and this has lead the BCA to abandon its claim.”

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: Filmmaker, author and science writer Simon Singh

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