Archive for the ‘Legal chill’ Category

The Mass Libel Reform Blog – Fight for Free Speech!

November 10, 2010

Dr Aust, in common with many far better known bloggers, is delighted to host the following, written by scientific libel hero Simon Singh.


“This week is the first anniversary of the report Free Speech is Not for Sale, which highlighted the oppressive nature of English libel law. In short, the law is extremely hostile to writers, while being unreasonably friendly towards powerful corporations and individuals who want to silence critics.

The English libel law is particularly dangerous for bloggers, who are generally not backed by publishers, and who can end up being sued in London regardless of where the blog was posted. The internet allows bloggers to reach a global audience, but it also allows the High Court in London to have a global reach.

You can read more about the peculiar and grossly unfair nature of English libel law at the website of the Libel Reform Campaign. You will see that the campaign is not calling for the removal of libel law, but for a libel law that is fair and which would allow writers a reasonable opportunity to express their opinion and then defend it.

The good news is that the British Government has made a commitment to draft a bill that will reform libel, but it is essential that bloggers and their readers send a strong signal to politicians so that they follow through on this promise. You can do this by joining me and over 50,000 others who have signed the libel reform petition at:

Remember, you can sign the petition whatever your nationality and wherever you live. Indeed, signatories from overseas remind British politicians that the English libel law is out of step with the rest of the free world.

If you have already signed the petition, then please encourage friends, family and colleagues to sign up. Moreover, if you have your own blog, you can join hundreds of other bloggers by posting this blog on your own site. There is a real chance that bloggers could help change the most censorious libel law in the democratic world.

We must speak out to defend free speech. Please sign the petition for libel reform at    ….”

Simon Singh


Some more background – [Dr Aust speaking again]:

As long-time readers (survivors?) of this blog will know, Simon Singh’s defence of the libel claim against him by the British Chiropractic Association eventually ended in a victory for free speech. However, free speech in similar cases remains insecure while the underlying structural problems with the English libel law remain.

From the Judgement of the Court of Appeal in the BCA vs. Singh libel case (via Jack of Kent).

[On matters of libel and scientific controversy]

“We would respectfully adopt what Judge Easterbrook, now Chief Judge of the US Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, said in a libel action over a scientific controversy, Underwager v Salter 22 Fed. 3d 730 (1994):

“”[Plaintiffs] cannot, by simply filing suit and crying ‘character assassination!’, silence those who hold divergent views, no matter how adverse those views may be to plaintiffs’ interests. Scientific controversies must be settled by the methods of science rather than by the methods of litigation. … More papers, more discussion, better data, and more satisfactory models – not larger awards of damages – mark the path towards superior understanding of the world around us.”” [para. 34, emphasis added]

Now, it may appear clear from this passage where their Lordships’ view lies. Note though, that this is a suggestion, albeit a strongish one (“adopt”). It is not a law. It is not a part of the judgement that is binding on judges hearing further libel cases.

If you doubt for a moment how dangerous it can still be to speak out on matters of scientific and medical controversy, read this. Or this.

(For more medical-technical coverage of the Wilmshurst case, you could start here – links to further information at the bottom – or on Aubrey Blumsohn’s excellent blog.)

If this appals you – as it does me – then now is your chance to do something about it.

Sign the petition, and encourage others to do so.

The recent Science is Vital campaign shows that issue-based campaigns can move politicians to action.

The more people that sign the libel reform petition, the more the politicians will take notice.

So please sign.

Do it now.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world”

– generally attributed to American cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead (1901-1978)


PS – 11th Nov: No sooner had all these libel reform posts gone up yesterday, then we went from the depressing to the depressing AND ridiculous with the “boob job cream” libel story: read more here.

You. Couldn’t. Make. It. Up.

Unless you have a product to sell, of course…


They think it’s all over – it is now – BCA drop lawsuit against Simon Singh

April 15, 2010

In which Dr Aust wonders if the BCA’s PR people are “channeling” his thoughts.

The blogosphere (and indeed the mainstream news media) is aflame with the news that the British Chiropractic Association has dropped their libel claim against Simon Singh. They served a “Notice of Discontinuance” this morning.

Though the financial situation is still to be revealed/resolved, it seems likely that the BCA will have to meet most of Simon Singh’s legal costs, which may well run into a couple of hundred grand.

Over the last couple of weeks bloggers had been speculating about what the BCA would do after the Court of Appeal’s landmark judgement. Dr Aust had even laid out a likely course of action for the BCA were they to decide to bail out. I thought it might be interesting to show you this, and then what the BCA have actually said today.

Here is Dr Aust’s prediction, from a week or two back (April 7th)  of a likely “Exit Stategy”, taken from the comments thread under Jack of Kent’s “Open Letter to the BCA”:


If the BCA’s PR agency were any good – and they certainly seem to get paid plenty of money – then they could easily try and “spin” pulling the plug as follows:

(i) we genuinely thought Simon Singh had accused us of being dishonest, which we took MOST SERIOUSLY

(ii) we still think this was meaning the original words conveyed, BUT we reluctantly accept Appeal Court’s view… and we are MOST GRATIFIED Singh has stated publicly that he didn’t mean we were dishonest (quote Simon’s public statements to this effect)

(iii) given protracted nature of legal proceedings… we are persuaded that the financial burden on our members… need the money to do important work promoting chiropractic… etc etc.

All done by press release w/out taking questions.

Arguably outside the Skeptosphere it will all be a storm in a teacup.

Of course, notwithstanding their large tab, the BCA’s PR team seem thus far to be as sharp in their judgement as the BCA’s lawyers.


So that was the prediction.

And here, hot from their website, is the BCA’s press statement:



Having carefully considered its position in the light of the judgment of the Court of Appeal (1st April 2010), the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) has decided to discontinue its libel action against Simon Singh.

As previously made clear, the BCA brought the claim because it considered that Simon Singh had made a serious allegation against its reputation, namely, that the BCA promoted treatments that it knew to be “bogus”. The Honourable Mr Justice Eady, the UK’s most experienced defamation judge, agreed with the BCA’s interpretation of the article and ruled that it made a serious factual allegation of dishonesty.

The Court of Appeal, in its recent judgment, has taken a very different view of the article. On its interpretation, the article did not make any factual allegation against the BCA at all; it was no more than an expression of ‘honest opinion’ by Simon Singh. While it still considers that the article was defamatory of the BCA, the decision provides Dr Singh with a defence such that the BCA has taken the view that it should withdraw to avoid further legal costs being incurred by either side.

As those who have followed the publicity surrounding this case will know, Simon Singh has said publicly that he had never intended to suggest that the BCA had been dishonest. The BCA accepts this statement, which goes some way to vindicating its position.

The BCA takes seriously its duty and responsibilities to members and to chiropractic patients. The BCA has considered seeking leave to take this matter to the Supreme Court and has been advised there are strong grounds for appeal against the Court of Appeal judgment. However, while it was right to bring this claim at the outset, the BCA now feels that the time is right for the matter to draw to a close.

More media information from Carl Courtney on 07785 397321 but no new information will be given.


Now, I will make no claims for my own future-predicting powers, or PR wizardry, as the likely structure of the retreat was pretty obvious to anyone who has been following the case.

I, will, however, quote another of my lines from the same Jack of Kent thread:

“Of course…the BCA…could have taken broadly the course of action I recommend nigh-on two years ago and likely saved themselves several hundred grand.”

But more than that, the BCA have now made it more, not less, likely that overreaching claims by alternative therapists will be publicly challenged in blunt terms from here on out.

This is because the legal result of the BCA’s suit has been to leave us with a judgement from the Court of Appeal’s senior Justices that makes very clear their view that scientific debates should not be settled in the courts.

While how much of this view is “legally binding” is open to discussion (which inevitably will probably be discussion by highly paid lawyers), the net result in practise seems certain to be that chiropractors, and other alternative medicine types, are less likely to try suing critics to silence them in future.

It bears saying, yet again, that had Simon Singh not had the guts to put his own money on the line when the BCA sued him personally, we would not be at this point today. As I wrote on yet another of Jack of Kent’s threads:

We know Simon [Singh] is prepared to lose his own money on a point of principle. We know [this] since he kept going after Eady’s initial ruling, when his lawyers almost certainly advised him that he was now highly likely to lose the case at trial, that the appeal on meaning was a long shot, and that the “percentage” choice would be to cut his losses and offer a limited apology.

And all scientists, and indeed everyone who opposed libel being used to silence criticism, owes him a debt.

Simon, we salute you.

Stop Press: Simon Singh wins Appeal Court ruling on meaning

April 1, 2010

Wonderful news from the Court of Appeal this morning.

Simon Singh has won his “appeal on meaning”. He will now be allowed to argue, in defence of the libel claim brought against him personally by the British Chiropractic Association, that his remarks were “fair comment”.

Jack of Kent’s Twitter feed is the go-to source for the details. He has given a few selected lines from the judgement, which I will repeat here:

“[Singh’s phrase] “not a jot of evidence”…[is] a statement of opinion, and one backed by reasons”


“[the word] “bogus”…[is] more emphatic than assertive”

– referring, of course, to the much debated b-word;

“Once..”jot” [is perceived] a value judgment…[the use of the word] “happily” loses its sting…[giving it a meaning approximating] blithely”

(recall that the main phrase the BCA and Eady J found libellous in Singh’s article was:  “The BCA… happily… promotes bogus treatments”)

The Appeal Justices also commented that the BCA’s bringing and pursuit of the case gave the

“Unhappy impression… [of an] endeavour by BCA to silence one of its critics”

Which, of course, has been the opinion of pretty much everyone, excepting chiropractors and a few other alternative medicine types, right from Day One.

And which, since we are back to talking about “Fair Comment”, gives me an excuse to plug my first extended dissertation on the case, written way back in August 2008.

Back in the Bunker, meanwhile, it appears that the BCA are now considering whether to attempt to appeal today’s ruling on meaning, according to a statement they have issued.

Anyway, we are promised the full ruling on Jack of Kent’s website ASAP.  Since Jack tells us it quotes Milton and George Orwell, I am rather looking forward to it. (Since I started writing this, Index on Censorship have uploaded the PDF version of the whole judgement).

[Update: the full ruling is now online in a more easily readable form here. It is well worth a read. The Justices are clearly men of classical education, as apart from Orwell and Milton, Galileo gets a mention. This is particularly apt as it is a regular gambit of Alt Medicine types to liken themselves to Galileo, a tactic which has been termed “The Galileo Gambit” – see also here.]

One of the final paragraphs of the judgement, paragraph 34, bears specifically on the question of scientific issues in the courts, and is worth re-typing in full:


34. We would respecfully adopt what Judge Easterbrook, now Chief Judge of the US Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, said in a libel action over a scientific controversy. Underwager v Salter 22 Fed 3d 730 (1994):

“Plaintiffs cannot, by simply filing suit and crying “character assassination!”, silence those who hold divergent views, no matter how adverse those views may be to plaintiffs’ interests. Scientific controversies must be settled by the methods of science rather than by the methods of litigation. …More papers, more discussion, better data and more satisfactory models – not larger awards of damages – mark the path towards superior understanding of the world around us”


…And I certainly can’t think of many (any?) scientists who would disagree with that.



Since no self-respecting blogger misses a chance of a bit of “Self-Biggin'”, here are links to the full collection of my coverage of the Singh case, right from the beginning:

Back Quack crack attack – it’ s a legal matter baby – detailed amateur legal analysis from August 2008, plus some musing on libel tourism.

It’s Quiet – too quiet – an end-of-2008 round up, wondering what had become of the case and discussing Singh’s proposed defence and the nature of CAM belief.

Truly Much Bogosity – some thoughts on the Eady ruling on meaning of May last year, the much-debated word “bogus”, and the chilling effect of English Libel Law.

Back Crack Quack Attack – the song – sadly as yet unrecorded, though it did gain me the scorn of a rather serious person styling themself “Cochrane Reviewer” over at Science Punk.

BCA say they want scientific debate – bears eschew woods for proper flush toilets and soft toilet paper – Dr Aust’s lower mandible almost dislocates under the jaw-dropping effect of a startling BCA press release in June 2009.

Stop Press – Simon Singh granted leave to appeal Oct 14th 2009 – Dr Aust enjoys the excellent news – with various updates through the day.

BCA v Singh – (unexploded?) literary devices – Dr Aust muses whether Simon Singh might have simply got his paragraphs the wrong way round.  “You stand accused, Mr Singh, of the Reckless and Dangerous Use of Rhetorical Devices– also from last October.

Chiropraktischer Untergang – updated with added Sturm und Drang – A bit of pre-Christmas fun. Dr Aust has a good laugh as someone does the inevitable chiropractic Downfall parody.

Keepin’ it unreal – again

October 24, 2009

Or: Homeopathic levels of accuracy

Observant readers may have spotted the new Dr Aust Twitter feed down at the bottom of the sidebar on the  blog.

Yes, that’s right – you can now follow Dr Aust on twitter, though I can’t really think why you would want to.

I had resisted signing up on Twitter until just a few days ago. I might bore you with the detailed reasons some other time, but the main one was that, as an Olympic-class procrastinator, I reckoned the last thing I needed was yet another way to procrastinate.

But – I now retract that statement. And Thank Goodness I signed up to Twitter this week.

Because late on Friday afternoon, at about 5 pm, Twitter gave me the best laugh I have had in a couple of months.

This was when several sceptical Tweets directed me to a truly marvellous example of Alternative, not to say Parallel, not to say Quantum Alternative Parallel Reality (“Quap Reality” for short). At which point, I laughed so hard I nearly fell out of my chair.

And it takes a lot to do that late on a Friday afternoon.

The cause was this article, from the notorious Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, or JACM, entitled:

CAM, Free Speech, and the British Legal System:
Overstepping the Mark?

The author of this bravura piece of Unreality (could it be a spoof?) is homeopathic quantum intellectual supreme, Dr Lionel Milgrom.

Or to give him his full title from the paper, which I suspect he would insist on,  since he typically lists all the letters:

Lionel R. Milgrom, Ph.D., M.A.R.H., M.R.Hom., F.R.S.C.

Now, I had occasionally suspected hitherto that Lionel Milgrom had untapped comic talent. But he has outdone himself this time.

Only the first page of the opus is free access, but that is more than enough:


The British Chiropractic Association recently won a libel case against the science writer and CAM ‘skeptic’ Dr Simon Singh

(Italics mine)

As Private Eye like to say – “shurely shome mistake”?

There really can’t be that many people following the BCA v Singh case in even a casual way who don’t know that it is still ongoing.

There is, after all, hardly a lack of coverage, at least online.

While Milgrom’s article clearly went to press before the latest hearing in the case last week – the article has no “accepted on” date, but there is a reference in it that says “accessed Aug 24th 2009” – surely no-one was under the illusion that Sir David Eady had actually heard the full libel action?

Well, apparently some people were. It gets better:

“The judge agreed with this argument [i.e. that the use of the word “bogus” implied the BCA had knowingly lied about the evidence concerning chiropractic for various childhood ailments] awarding the BCA substantial damages.

Truly bizarre. It was this sentence that had me speechless with laughter.

The first bit is OK – Eady did, in the main, accept the BCA’s pleaded meaning (this is the ruling that has just been sent back on appeal).

But “substantial damages”? Errr – NOT. Damages get awarded when the case is, like, finished.

(“Substantial Damages” , by the way, is a phrase usually used by successful libel complainants in their victorious press statements to imply that their opponents had been comprehensively slapped with the wet kipper, not to mention taken to the cleaners financially)

How very, VERY odd.

The remainder of Milgrom’s article, which sadly is behind a paywall, is a hoot too, but I will leave that for another time.

What I want to concentrate on now is the Sheer Unreality of it.




Unless there is some OTHER Quantum Alternative Parallel Reality, to which Milgrom perhaps has privileged access as a “Quantum Homeopath”, where what Milgrom says is actually true.

Of course!

How could I not have known?

Indeed, perhaps this “QUAP Reality” is where all the Alt.Reality folk hang out.

Once you have made that Leap into the Unreal, IT ALL BEGINS TO MAKE SENSE AT LAST.

In this Alternative Reality, of course the BCA won.

Indeed, this new Quantum Alternative Parallel Universe, or QUAP-iverse, seems to be especially favourable for Libel verdicts.

Remember how we saw at the start of this year, in “Keeping It Unreal”, that dropping a libel suit and getting landed with hundreds of thousands of pounds in legal costs was actually a huge VICTORY for noted Alternative Reality Figure Dr Matthias Rath?

Clearly, in the same (Un) Reality Rath seems to inhabit, the BCA have already won large damages, just as Milgrom states.

And then, of course, all the other seemingly daft stuff falls into place too.

– Diluting a substance makes it MORE powerful.
– Mystical laying on of hands beams out healing power.
– Illness is all in the Mind.
– Pushing on your arm can diagnose your allergies.
– Massaging your feet can magically rejuvenate your kidneys.
– Flushing your rear end with a load of warm water can magically “detox” your liver.
– Sticking you in a “Sweat lodge” and cooking you until you are dangerously dehydrated and hallucinating can be a “healing experience”

– and so on.

So – Silly Me.

There I was thinking these folk were all away with the fairies, when really they were simply privileged to be able to access a QUAP-iverse where all this stuff is really true.


Or: I was right the first time.

They really ARE Away With The Fairies.

Tinfoil Hats And All.

In this rather party-pooping view, which Alt.Reality folk like to call “Scientism” – though I prefer “Reality” – the normal rules of physics and chemistry apply, homeopathic remedies are water, BCA v. Singh is still ongoing, all the daft “therapies”  I mentioned just now are a bunch of **!*, and Dr Milgrom has clearly not been checking his facts carefully enough.

And nor,  it would seem, has anyone else at the JACM.

(Chief Editor, if you didn’t know: Dr Kim “Dr Q-link” Jobst, FRCP).

Of course, Milgrom is on the JACM Editorial Board (you can see the full membership here), so one is curious whether such extended “Opinion Pieces” – the JACM actually calls the section in which the Milgrom piece features “Paradigms”, whatever they mean by that  – even get read by anyone apart from the author, if that author is a journal editor.

As to whether this apparent carelessness with facts is representative of other bits of Dr Milgrom’s oeuvre, or indeed of other content in the JACM

– you might well wonder about that.

But – on the advice of my lawyers – I couldn’t possibly comment.