Science writer Simon Singh fears he could face a legal bill of up to £40,000 despite successfully fighting off a defamation battle brought against him by the British Chiropractic Association.
The BCA, which claimed a Guardian article written by Singh in 2008 had accused its leaders of knowingly supporting bogus treatments, admitted defeat in its two-year libel battle by serving notice yesterday of the discontinuance of its action.
Singh’s article had appeared on a page marked “Comment and Debate” in The Guardian in April 2008.
In it, he criticised chiropractic and the BCA’s claims that its members could help treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying “even though there is not a jot of evidence”.
Despite winning the battle against the BCA, and again being able to publish his article, Singh told Press Gazette he could still be left with a sizable bill as he “fully expects” the BCA to argue that they should not pay all his costs.
He said: “They [BCA] are liable for their own costs and they will also have to pay my libel bills as well. But there is likely to be some legal argument about what I paid for.
“Someone, somewhere, will have to pay around £400,000 for both sides; mine and the BPA but it means I could still end up paying £20,000, £30,000 or £40,000 for successfully defending a libel.
“In addition, there is two years of stress, worry, loss of income, and the fear that I could have faced a near half-a-million pound loss.”
The BCA withdrew its action following Singh’s victory at the Court of Appeal, on 1 April, which gave him the right to rely on the defence of fair comment in the action.
At a preliminary ruling, at the High Court in May last year, Justice Eady had ruled that Singh’s comments amounted to factual assertions rather than expressions of opinion – effectively ruling out the use of a fair comment defence.
However at the Court of Appeal hearing earlier this month, the Lord Chief Justice Lord Judge, Master of the Rolls Lord Neuberger and Lord Justice Sedley ruled that Eady had “erred in his approach” and allowed Singh’s appeal.
Singh said his victory and the Court of Appeal ruling didn’t signal the end of scientific debate being stifled by threats of legal action.
That would not come, he added, until the “unfair” burden of proof was shifted away from defendants, costs in libel cases were reduced and a robust public-interest defence was introduced in England and Wales.
“The ruling on 1 April clearly says that scientists should be able to rely of fair comment as defence but what is now required is a fundamental change of the libel laws and, thankfully, all three [main] political parties have committed to libel reform,” he added.
“It still staggers me that the British Chiropractic Association and half the chiropractors in the UK were making unsubstantiated claims. It still baffles me that the BCA then dared to sue me for libel and put me through two years of hell before I was vindicated.
“And it still makes me angry that our libel laws not only tolerate but also encourage such ludicrous libel suits.
“English libel law is so intimidating, so expensive, so hostile to serious journalists that it has a chilling effect on all areas of debate, silencing scientists, journalists, bloggers, human rights activists and everyone else who dares to tackle serious matters of public interest.
“In the area of medicine alone, fear of libel means that good research is not always published because those with vested interests might sue, and bad research that should be withdrawn is not pulled because the authors might sue the journal, and in both cases it is the public that loses out because the truth is never exposed.”
Tracey Brown, of Sense About Science, which is campaigning to keep libel law out of scientific debate, said: “We are very pleased Simon will not have to fight this case any more. It is ludicrous that someone writing about an important subject like children’s health could be dragged through the courts for years and at such cost.
“However Simon’s case has shone a light into the dark corner of legal threats being used to silence academics, scientists, bloggers, writers and scientists unable to sacrifice two years and GBP200,000 to defend their words.
“The case for a statutory public interest defence is well and truly made. This is why we’re pleased to see cross party manifesto commitment to libel reform but we must continue to press for change that protects the public interest from legal bullies.”