My topic is my libel trial and some of the battles I’ve had with alternative medicine, alongside my colleague and friend Edzard Ernst.
To start with, I should stress that my background is not in medicine, but in particle physics. And, for most of my career in journalism, I focussed on promoting good science – exciting, interesting, challenging science – the kind of science we used to dream about when we were kids.
For example, a few years ago I heard a song on the radio by Katie Melua, called nine million bicycles, which contained the following verse.
We are 12 billion light years from the edge,
That’s a guess,
No one can ever say it’s true,
But I know that I will always be with you.
It made me a little bit annoyed, because the song implies the universe is 12 billion years old, and it’s not. Then she says, “That’s a guess,” but it’s not a guess - this is science and scientists don’t make guesses, we make careful measurements. Next she says, “no-one can ever say it’s true”. But that’s not right because in science we always try to get closer to the truth. And finally, “I know that I will always be with you”. Well at this point I felt I couldn’t trust a word this woman says. So I wrote an article about this for the Guardian, and at the end I re-wrote the lyrics to make them a bit more accurate.
We are 13.7 billion light years from the edge of the observable universe,
That’s a good estimate with well defined error bars,
Scientists say it’s true, but acknowledge that it may be refined,
And with the available information, I predict that I will always be with you.
The great thing was that Katie Melua actually read the article, she got the joke, and we met up and she re-recorded the song, using my lyrics. Even better, the article about my re-write hit a big mainstream audience, so I was able to convey a bit of cosmology to the general public.
However, about ten years ago, instead of finding ways to communicate mainstream science, I began writing about pseudoscience. I started to get interested in some different kinds of claims that were being made in the name of science, that weren’t very scientific, but which could have serious consequences. For example, I wrote about homeopaths who offered homeopathy pills as protection from malaria. Moreover, I worked on an undercover investigation with Sense About Science and we exposed the dangers of the advice that we found some homeopaths were giving to people travelling to malaria-affected countries.
Back in those days I still didn’t know that much about alternative medicine generally, so I was interested to see a BBC 2 show in 2006 called “Alternative Medicine – The evidence”. It was particularly memorable, because the narrator explained an astonishing clip: “In China this woman is having open heart surgery. But it is unlike anything you will see in the West - she’s still conscious. Because, instead of a general anaesthetic, this 21st Century surgical team are using a 2000-year-old method of controlling pain. Acupuncture.”
I thought, either that’s the most staggering bit of film I’ve seen all year, or there’s something wrong here. I did a bit of digging and I learned that the Royal College of Anaesthetists had written a report for the BBC about that very piece of footage, and it said that the patient didn’t have a general anaesthetic, but she had in fact received sufficiently large doses of sedative and painkilling drugs to make the acupuncture’s role no more than cosmetic.
It was around this time I met Edzard Ernst, Professor of Complementary Medicine at Exeter University. We soon realised that we had overlapping interests, namely an appreciation of the importance of evidence and the desire to communicate research to the general public. In time, we wrote a book together1 to look at the evidence for alternative medicine, to consider what does and doesn’t work, and whether any of it could actually be dangerous. We had chapters about homeopathy, acupuncture and all kinds of other practices, and also we wrote articles in the press, to help people weigh up the risks and benefits of these treatments.
One of the articles I wrote at the time was on the subject of chiropractic and was published in the Guardian on 19 April 2008, with the title "Beware the Spinal Trap". I mentioned the way that many chiropractors go from claiming to treat back problems to being able to treat things like ear infections and asthma, based on this rather odd philosophy that manipulating the spine is able to influence the rest of the body via the nervous system. As a result of writing this article I became the subject of a libel action brought by the British Chiropractic Association (BCA).
The case went on for two years, and I was facing costs of £500,000 were I to lose. Fortunately, the BCA finally backed down, withdrew its lawsuit, and the case ended. It was a miserable time, causing a huge amount of stress and forcing me to dedicate half of my working time on the legal battle. Nevertheless, some good things came out of this. Firstly, it encouraged discussion and the challenge of chiropractic claims. Fiona Godlee, in the British Medical Journal, published a debate between Edzard Ernst and the BCA. She concluded: “Readers can decide for themselves whether or not they are convinced. Edzard Ernst is not. His demolition of the 18 references is, to my mind, complete.”2
Suddenly doctors were becoming more aware of what chiropractors were claiming. There were also campaigns run by people who are not really part of the medical establishment. For example, Simon Perry, Chris French, and Alan and Maria Henness of the Nightingale Collaboration, submitted 600 legitimate complaints about chiropractors to the General Chiropractic Council. Almost overnight, chiropractors reacted and began taking down their websites and withdrawing leaflets in order to avoid prosecution for claims that could not be supported by evidence.
It was around this time that the campaign to reform the English libel law started. There was a general sense that it was too easy to bring a libel case, and that this state of affairs was actually discouraging critical media reporting on matters of serious public interest. The burden of proof was on the writer, there was no public interest defence, and it was possible for companies to sue individuals and land them with high costs, with no risk to the organisation bringing the case.
What is more, a lot of these features were peculiar to English libel law, so if someone anywhere in the world wanted to issue a writ, they would be tempted to issue it here in London. This is what is known as libel tourism. Even the United Nations had condemned the English judges' practice of welcoming rich libel tourists from across the world to their hospitable courts; and following a case in which an English judge ordered the censorship of a New York author's book on terrorism, which had not even been published in Britain, the US Congress began drafting a law which would guarantee that English libel judgments have no validity in America.
My case was not unique. At the time, some of the other people being sued for libel or being threatened included Ben Goldacre, Peter Wilmshurst, David Colquhoun, Andy Lewis, Mumsnet. Even the prestigious journal Nature was sued over an article on cosmology, and that case also lasted for two years and ran up huge costs. What is more, there were many good articles which were never even written because of self-censorship fuelled by a fear of a libel suit – what we call the “chilling effect”.
The Libel Reform Campaign was founded by Sense About Science, English PEN and Index on Censorship, with support from groups ranging from HealthWatch to Skeptics in the Pub, from academic journals to Mumsnet, and there were people all around the world who joined in, because they realised they could also get dragged into London’s Royal Courts of Justice. The Libel Reform campaign at www.libelreform.org received the backing of the editors of BMJ, Nature and New Scientist, and people like Richard Dawkins, Ricky Gervais, Stephen Fry, Penn & Teller, James Randi, Sir Tim Hunt, Sir David King, the UCL Provost and 50,000 others.
After a remarkable grass roots campaign, the Defamation Act received royal assent on 25 April 2013, and became law in England and Wales at start of 2014. This change to the law of defamation aims to strike a fair balance between the right to freedom of expression and the right to reputation. Plaintiffs now have to show that they suffer serious harm before a court will accept the case. There’s protection for website operators, a defence of 'responsible publication on matters of public interest' and new statutory defences of truth and honest opinion.
But there is still work to be done. In Northern Ireland there remains a problem because Belfast’s libel laws have not yet been brought into line with the new Act. So the campaign is still ongoing, and with the backing of HealthWatch and all our other supporters, I am optimistic that Northern Ireland will realise that necessity of bringing its defamation laws into the twenty first century.
1 Singh S and Ernst E. Trick or treatment? Alternative medicine on trial. Corgi Books, London, 2008.
2 Godlee F. Keep libel laws out of science. BMJ 2009;339:b2783. See: http://www.bmj.com/content/339/bmj.b2783.full