Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Westminster Skeptics & Simon Singh's Appeal


Hurrah, the inaugural meeting of Westminster Skeptics. By my count, a very near-capacity crowd of a hundred or so gathered at the Barley Mow to hear David Allen Green, Nick Cohen, Ben Goldacre and Simon Singh discuss English libel law. And we weren't the only people interested - Newsnight turned up too. We're at 37:33.

The Trafigura case and The Guardian's challenge to a reporting ban on Parliamentary questions has helped to make libel law a higher-profile issue than it would already have been. As David Allen Green reminded us in his opening:
"This is not about protecting Simon Singh, it's about protecting the public who are missing out on news reporting".

Nick Cohen followed and spoke of his impression after his first meeting with Skeptics at Penderel's Oak earlier in the year by saying "I was staggered by the sight of geeks in arms".

Cohen's passion about and knowledge of politcal campaigning is clear and he reminded us that change is actually acheivable. In what sometimes seems to me to be an era of very limp political fervour, he said it was naive, lazy and apathetic to think that there could be no change. The right to vote, rights for women - all of these were at one point ideas which were fought for and finally acheived.

Twitter and blogging have undoubtedly made a difference to the Singh campaign. In the era of electronic publishing, he said "You are all journalists now" to which David Allen Green ominously added "... and the law regards you as publishers"


Ben Goldacre reminded us that very vigourous peer review is an integral part of the scientific process. Hospitals have highly robust meetings, usually once a week, where difficult cases are discussed and all possible options reviewed. Medicine can sometimes do dreadful things with the very best of intentions, and open criticism is the only way that this phenomenon can be effectively managed.

By contrast, libel law is sometimes misused simply to shut people up. It's anti-science.

At the beginning of the Simon Singh case, I remember Jack of Kent writing that a libel action's winnability was not the only factor to take into account: cases can also backfire, bringing loud and counterproductive publicity, something seen in the McLibel case.

Goldacre evoked the phenomenon by saying that although the rich and powerful could serve writs and bring actions, the public could "... make it like chewing on a mouthful of wasps ... people will learn that this is not a good way of managing their reputations".

The BCA didn't heed Jack all that time ago, but must surely have taken this on board by now.

Simon Singh was last to speak. He reiterated that Engish libel law was unlike others: for one thing, English libel cases are one hundred times more expensive than their equivalents on mainland Europe. This means that they are usually ruinous to any target - even if they win!

By now, it is also apparent that English libel laws also lack international credibility. The case of Rachel Ehrenfeld, an American author sued in London by a Saudi national, prompted a series of state's laws in the US that has prevented foreign judgements being enforcable in the US if the foreign law did not protect freedom of speech to the same extent as the American version.

Singh's case was highlighted at the recent Liberal-Democrat conference by Richard Dawkins. And Singh told us that he had also spoken to Labout politicians and recently Ed Vaizey, Shadow Minister for Culture about libel law reform.

As his for appeal hearing tomorrow:
"I did a PhD in particle physics and I find the law, frankly, baffling"

Good luck Simon. And good luck Skeptics Westminster. Great first event.


PS.
As I write, the tweets are flocking: apparently Simon Singh has been given leave to appeal. Latest from Crispian Jago. Details and more soon, no doubt, from Jack of Kent. Plus the implications on the original ruling for Article 10 of the Human Rights Act at Tessera

PPS
Video with Simon Singh after today's hearing:

2 comments:

  1. I was there too - hoorah for the well-named Justice Laws.

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