Newsletter 33: Simon Singh v British Chiropractic Association & Justice Eady’s ruling on meaning

I apologise for the silence since last week’s bad news at the High Court, but at last I have been able to take stock of the situation and write a quick update.

It has been over a year since I wrote an article for the Guardian newspaper (19 April 2008) about chiropractic, its effectiveness in relation to childhood conditions and its risks. The British Chiropractic Association then decided to sue me for libel and I have spent most of the last twelve months building a defence.

Prior to the full trial it was agreed that it would be helpful for the actual meaning of the article to be established in a preliminary hearing. On Thursday 7 May 2009 the preliminary hearing took place at the Royal Courts of Justice in front of Justice David Eady. It is not an understatement to say that his ruling was, from my point of view, disastrous and misguided.

The core of my article, and the aspect that I thought was mainly under scrutiny, suggested that chiropractors lacked evidence to support their treatment of several childhood conditions. I therefore called these treatments “bogus”.

The judge held that merely using the phrase “happily promotes bogus treatments” meant that I was stating, as a matter of fact, that the BCA was being consciously dishonest in promoting chiropractic for treating the children’s ailments in question, in that they were promoting treatments they knew were ineffective.

Although I maintain my position that such chiropractic treatment for childhood conditions lacks any significant scientific basis and that chiropractic in general carries risks, I do not and never have meant to imply that chiropractors are deliberately and dishonestly offering such treatments. My view is that, for example, they may not know the scientific evidence, they may not understand it or they may have a biased interpretation of the evidence – I don’t know. More generally, I share the commonly held view that alternative therapists who offer treatments unsupported by reasonable evidence are deluded rather than deliberately dishonest. I think that Justice Eady has failed to interpret the meaning of the article in the way that a reasonable reader would understand it.

The current ruling by Justice Eady means that I stand very, very little hope of a successful defence at trial, so going to trial is not a realistic option. My two reasonable options are to:

1. Settle now, which will cost in excess of £100,000 (the vast majority of these costs would be to cover the BCA’s legal bills, as opposed to damages).

2. Submit an appeal in relation to the meaning of my article, hoping for a more reasonable ruling on meaning and then fight the case on what the article really meant.

I have until May 28 to lodge an application to appeal. I am seriously thinking about this option and am discussing it with my lawyers. It would increase my legal costs and eat up more time, but on the other hand I think I deserve the chance to fight my case on a reasonable interpretation of my article.

Moreover, this case demonstrates the chilling effect that the libel laws can have journalism in general, and science journalism in particular. The events of last week impact far beyond the author of one article on the subject of chiropractic.

Last Thursday was a miserable day, but I like to think I am as resilient as a Tigger. I am certainly in good spirits. In particular, family, friends, readers and bloggers have all cheered me up.

Thanks also for your supportive messages. I will try to reply to emails, but please forgive me if I don’t. The best option is to post to the Facebook site (see below) – I do regularly read the wall and it frequently makes me smile. I should also point out that the enormous support that I have received from around the world has certainly made me more enthusiastic about lodging an appeal (if this turns out to be a practical option).
Scientists, journalists, comedians, rationalists, skeptics, bloggers, politicians and those who care about free speech have all expressed their outrage at last week’s ruling.

The next event that will interest those following the case is a public meeting on Monday 18 May at 6.30pm at Penderel’s Oak Pub (283 High Holborn, WC1V 7HP). Speakers will include me, the amazing Nick Cohen, the fantastic Dave Gorman and the heroic Evan Harris MP.

If you cannot make it to the meeting, then please help by letting others know about the case, the ruling and the possibility of an appeal. If there is an appeal, then it would be great to launch it upon a strong tide of public support.

If you want to find out more about the case (or want to inform others) then below are some useful links. This includes mainstream media coverage in New Scientist, Nature and the Economist.

Thanks again to everyone who has been so supportive.

Simon (still smiling) Singh.
For Simon Singh and Free Speech – Against the BCA Libel Claim
This seems to be the best place for keeping up with the latest news and developments. It contains links to various blogs and articles commenting on the case. Joining the group is a great way to show your support.

Jack of Kent’s blog is well informed and written from an expert’s point of view. Recent update postings include:

Googling words such as SIMON SINGH, BCA, LIBEL will take you to lots of blogs and articles about the libel case. Google news is particularly helpful (search “SIMON SINGH”, and you can also then click on the blog option.