In April 2008, the science writer Simon Singh wrote in The Guardian that chiropractors “happily promote bogus treatments”. Singh was outlining the serious concerns he had about practitioners of unproven alternative medicines encouraging people with serious diseases to pay for expensive consultations and therapies with poor evidence basis, rather than consult real medical doctors. The British Chriopractic Association subsequently sued Singh for libel, and came close to winning when Justice Eady made the bizarre ruling that those four words amounted to a statement that chiropractors promote treatments that they know to be false. That is, Eady interpreted Singh’s words as an accusation of malice rather than the intended allegation of ignorance. Had Eady’s ruling not subsequently been overturned on appeal, under the libel laws of England and Wales it would have been up to Singh to prove that that the chiropractors were being deliberately dishonest if he wanted to fight and win the case. When accused of libel, you are guilty until you can prove your innocence, and you could easily spend millions of pounds and several years of your life trying.
Since Singh’s case, we’ve seen a bunch of bloggers and online commentators subjected to libel threats and cases. And we are all affected by these threats: even the most outspoken and fearless crusading bloggers and blog commenters constantly — often unconsciously, having absorbed the behaviour from others that they read — tone down their writing, with innuendo and weasel words. This celebrity allegedly used a mobile phone while driving; that borough council experienced voting irregularities; these railway engineering companies have questions to answer about safety proceedures. Every time you comment on a cyclist killed by a construction truck, a car manufacturer’s green wash, a company’s pavement parking problem, a council contractor’s incompetence, a sportsman’s chemical abuse, or a formula one organiser’s nazi role-play games, you have to ask yourself: “the subject of this comment can’t try to sue me for this, can they?” Because even if you’re a hundred percent sure that you’re right, independent bloggers don’t have the time or money to waste proving it. And companies, organisations, and celebrities know this. Most libel threats are never intended to end up in court: they are brought in knowledge that the accused will almost always back down, delete the post and shut up, for the sake of a simple life.
This is a uniquely British restriction on freedom of speech, a constant constraint on free and open political debate and academic advance. We are pretty much alone in presuming guilt in libel cases.
So bloggers, commenters, and readers: if you haven’t already, go and sign the petition for libel reform. The libel reform campaign is very close to success; we just need to remind our politicians of their election commitment to it.
Legal disclaimer: the title of this post is not intended to imply that Philip Hammond maliciously promotes transport policies that he knows will make problems worse not better. I just think he’s incapable of realising how stupid his policies are.