Interview: Simon Singh, science writer

Science writer Simon Singh tells LEE RANDALL why his hard-won victory for free speech should make others think twice before they hit researchers with libel suits

•Simon Singh (second left) with supporters including David Davis MP (right), outside the High Court, London, after Mr Singh won his Court of Appeal battle for the right to rely on the defence of fair comment in a libel action.

PERHAPS Simon Singh is a superhero. For the past two years the broadcaster and best-selling author, who holds a PhD in particle physics, has waged an expensive,highly public court battle against the British Chiropractic Association, who sued him personally for libelonthe backof a comment piecepublished in the Guardian. Singh has spent roughly 200,000 of his own money and put his working life on hold, but in the course of doing so has helped change legal history.

While that would be anyone's idea of a full plate, amid this turmoil he and wife Anita Anand had a baby boy, Hari, born at the end of March. Therefore I'm thinking "super powers" when we meet in London ahead of a Sceptics in the Pub event hosted by blogger Jack of Kent (aka David Allen Green), and Singh rocks up looking cheerful, well rested, and easily half his 46 years.

"Life just goes on," he says, when I marvel. "I don't remember questioning whether the libel case would affect any of our big life decisions. Also, when I decided to defend the case I assumed it would be over by Christmas. Then I assumed it would be over by May, when we had the preliminary hearing. And then we appealed, and I thought, 'OK, if we get the appeal it will be in the autumn, and we will either have won or lost.' We lost the appeal so we appealed again. As I've said, if I'd known that at the beginning I'm not sure I'd have been brave enough to embark on the whole battle."

Which is worse, the loss of time or the money spent? "It's everything," he says, adding that most lawyers advise against going to court, even if you're likely to win. "Because winning can ultimately mean losing. You don't win any money, you just have the right to have your article published.

"You never get back all your costs; you don't get back your time; you don't get back your lost income; you don't get back the holidays you didn't take. People back down because the libel system is so utterly hostile to journalists, bloggers, scientists. The smart thing is not to fight."

In April 2008 Singh published an article about the effectiveness of chiropractic, especially in relation to children's conditions, saying that there is no evidence to support their efficacy, and that the public had a right to know that.

The BCA were offered a right of reply and a clarification in the Guardian, but chose to sue instead. After a failed mediation, Mr Justice Eady ruled that the piece was fact, not comment, and that Singh had accused the BCA of being "knowingly dishonest". Singh and his team argued that he meant the BCA were "being reckless promoting chiropractic when the best evidence is against it, or that there is no evidence for its efficacy".

Singh might have given up, had it not been for support from a surprising sector – the online community. Bloggers such as Jack of Kent got behind him, as did a number of well-known faces. At an early rally in a pub in Holborn, Singh was surprised to see comics Dave Gorman and Robin Ince, Professor Brian Cox, and Lib Dem MP Evan Harris among the crowd. All had turned up after hearing about the rally via blogs or Twitter.

Allen Green recently blogged: "The huge support Simon received ... made a real difference; and not only to Simon's resolve. (It] was also the first time that the mainstream media became interested in the story … and when it became clear that there was a coalition, ranging from figures in popular culture to eminent science publishers, from politicians ... to bloggers, who had simply had enough.

"Following that meeting there were wide-ranging internet-based discussions about which course of action to take ... It was almost 'wiki-litigation.'"

On 1 April Singh won his appeal for the right to reply on the defence of fair comment, and on 15 April, the BCA officially withdrew its lawsuit, ending the case.

Now, all three political parties have incorporated libel reform in their manifestos. And no matter who wins, Singh's case has already changed the law. "The judge made two points: one was that they ... didn't want to see the high courts being used as some 'Orwellian ministry of truth.' The appeal states that they want to adopt a statement made by an American judge – not refer to but adopt it – which said that 'the way science progresses is not through libel suits and greater awards, but through discussion and more data and better data'."

Thus scientists brought to court could, by default, use the fair comment defence. "This is important, because one defence is justification, where you have to prove every single thing absolutely and completely, and the burden of proof is entirely on the scientist. The other defence is fair comment, which says that what you're saying is an intelligently held opinion and if you can back it up with some good reasons and some reasonable evidence, and if this is an opinion which a reasonable person might hold, then that would be sufficient defence."

Science is exploration, and the point is to engage in arguments as you test drive new ideas. "One scientist will interpret data one way, another in another way. One scientist may feel that an experiment is valid, another feels it's invalid. That's why scientists have discussions and put forward their opinions in conferences and papers.

"Eventually you hope that the scientific community comes to a consensus, and then maybe we're moving away from opinion into what might be an accepted fact.

"But the sort of articles we're talking about get written because people have different opinions. Therefore the defence of fair comment or honest opinion is the appropriate one.

"Scientists in future will have this defence if they get sued for libel, and hopefully fewer will be sued for libel."

Yet he admits that one outcome of libel reform could be more lawsuits. "The possible solutions include capping costs ... so you can't run up legal bills of a million pounds. We could have a libel tribunal, which would be swifter and cheaper and more efficient. There are all sorts of ways around it.

"Nobody wants to get rid of the libel laws, but we want them to be fairer. If we drove down the costs you might end up with more people suing. The only people who can afford it now are the rich and the giant corporations.

"I'm not sure where Scottish libel law sits, but it almost doesn't matter. If The Scotsman publishes an article and a giant pharmaceutical company, or anybody, wants to sue, they will probably end up doing it in London because your papers are read in London, the person suing you will have a reputation in London and so on. So you have to suffer the ridiculous nature of English libel laws. It would be fantastic if the SNP would back libel reform."

Singh refuses to take credit for heroism. His best-selling books – Fermat's Enigma, The Code Book, Big Bang and Trick or Treatment – have made him wealthy, and while he will feel the financial loss, it won't cripple him. The really brave guy, he says, is eminent British cardiologist Dr Peter Wilmshurst, who is being sued for libel by a US company called NMT, and who risks bankruptcy for raising concerns about data relating to a new heart device.

"I won't lose my house, whereas if he loses he will be destroyed, he will be bankrupted; he will lose his half of the house. He is the exception, because he's crazy enough to fight it. You can't blame any doctor or researcher who backs down from a battle like this."

But the fact is, Singh has become libel's poster boy. "If it had only been my case no-one would have cared; one case is an exception. But it's not one case and it's not exceptional. In one case it led to a university pulling the plug on a professor's blog. And if someone's sued for libel, that means you, the public, don't get to hear the truth."

Playing devil's advocate, I ask how he feels about online commentators, usually anonymous, who spout vitriol. Wouldn't libel laws be useful there? "There is a lot of moderation going on by bloggers and companies and so on. If someone feels they're being maliciously treated, then they should sue for libel. And if someone is malicious, if they are reckless, they will have no defence in law at all. There's even a separate accusation, malicious falsehood. If we drive down the costs, then you can use malicious falsehood; you can use libel with malice and recklessness thrown in. No-one wants to change this."

Whatever else he can say about the past two years, they haven't been dull.

"Understanding the libel laws and the process has been fascinating. I've never campaigned before, I'm not really a political animal, but I have been to Westminster twice a week every week for the last three months talking to politicians.

"How do you build a campaign? How do you inform the public? How do you get a core group of loyal followers who get out there and really do things? That's been interesting and I'll miss it.

"We have already made a significant change in the libel law. This group of people, working together, has helped changed history.

"There's still a huge amount to do (and] we can argue the fine points, but we no longer have to argue about the fact that libel needs to be reformed."

&#149 Simon Singh will appear at the Word Festival at the University of Aberdeen, at 4pm on Friday 14 May. Tickets are 5, or 3 for concessions, and can be booked at www.abdn.ac.uk/word or via the box office, tel: 01224 641122.

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