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Why our libel laws need urgent reform

Science writer Simon Singh explains how England's libel laws are preventing doctors, journalists and researchers speaking out about the safety of drugs.

Last month, Pulse surveyed 600 GPs and 48% believed that England's libel laws are stifling debate about drug safety.

Presumably the 12% who disagreed and the 40% who did not reply were not aware that our libel laws are the most oppressive in the free world and there is widespread concern that researchers and journalists are not writing about matters of public interest for fear of ending up in the High Court.

Earlier this year, Fiona Godlee, editor of the BMJ, explained the damaging impact of libel when she spoke to The Times.

'Weak science sheltered from officious laws means bad medicine. Science and medical discussion must be open and critical. Rebuttal of science is a very important part of research. An atmosphere where concern over legal issues prevents important papers being published will mean patients suffer,' she said.

There are numerous reasons why our libel laws are so problematic. For example, our libel system is notoriously expensive. In fact, a libel trial in England typically costs one hundred times more than the rest of Europe, which means that libel cases often cost over £1m.

This means that authors cannot even afford to defend their writing. Such extortionate costs can bankrupt journals and intimidate researchers. This leads to self-censorship, otherwise known as the ‘chilling effect' of libel.

A second problem is that writers are presumed guilty until proven innocent, which is particularly frightening when there is £1m at stake.

Moreover, there is no public interest defence. This sort of legal defence is available in many other countries, because it allows doctors, researchers and journalists to raise issues of public concern without the fear of a legal action. Of course, such a framework still demands fair and responsible journalism, but it recognises that the law should not be used to intimidate those who speak out on matters such as health.

Finally, our libel laws are so far behind the rest of Europe and America that we attract ‘libel tourists'. These are claimants from overseas who exploit our lop-sided libel laws to sue defendants who are also from overseas. The Americans are so angry at the way that our laws are being used crush debate and criticism that states are one by one passing legislation to block the impact of English libel laws on American citizens.

At this point, I should point out that I am currently being sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association. If my case was the only one, then it would not be worth talking about, but there are others cases currently going through the courts involving libel and medicine.

The cardiologist Peter Wilmshurst is being sued by the American company NMT for comments made about a heart device. The Danish researcher Henrik Thomsen criticised a contrast agent used to improve the legibility of MRI scans and is being sued by GE Healthcare. And last year Ben Goldacre and the Guardian were sued by Matthias Rath because they criticised his promotion of vitamin pills in South Africa to treat HIV. The Guardian won that case when Rath backed down, but they lost £175,000 in unrecovered costs.

In short, winning is terrible and losing is catastrophic. We have an atmosphere that discourages doctors, researchers and journalists from speaking out and warning about matters that are of serious concern.

There is currently a campaign for libel reform, which is catching the attention of politicians from all three parties. Indeed, the Ministry of Justice has just set up a working group to examine libel reform. You can help push this issue up the political agenda by signing up to the campaign for libel reform.

Over 25,000 people have already signed the petition. Peter Wilmshurt, Henrik Thomsen, Ben Goldacre and I have done our best to defend our writing and raise the issue of libel reform, so please take just a few seconds to visit the website and join the campaign.

Simon Singh is a science writer and broadcaster. His books include 'Fermat's Last Theorem' and 'Trick or Treatment? Alternative Medicine on Trial' , co-authored with Professor Edzard Ernst.

Simon Singh explains how England's libel laws are preventing doctors, journalists and researchers speaking out about the safety of drugs.