Feature Libel laws and scientific debate

An old battle: England’s libel laws versus scientific debate

BMJ 2010; 340 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.c1227 (Published 10 March 2010) Cite this as: BMJ 2010;340:c1227
  1. Richard Smith, director, UnitedHealth Chronic Disease Initiative
  1. [email protected]

    Several high profile cases have brought to the fore how England’s libel laws can stifle scientific debate, but as Richard Smith, former editor of the BMJ, explains, it is not a new problem

    The question of whether England’s libel laws are restricting scientific debate is currently high on the agenda because of prominent cases. Peter Wilmshurst, a Shrewsbury cardiologist, is being sued by a Boston company over his comments on a trial in which he participated. Simon Singh, the science writer, has a case against him brought by chiropractors, and Ben Goldacre, a doctor and author of the best selling Bad Science, is being repeatedly threatened.

    An old problem

    Those unfamiliar with England’s libel laws might thus think that this is a new phenomenon. In fact libel obstructing scientific debate is a longstanding problem, and the BMJ was involved in one of the longest running libel cases in legal history.1

    The BMJ published a study in May 1969 that showed that patients given the intravenous drug methohexitone had various abnormal physiological responses.2 These responses may have explained why some patients had died while being anaesthetised for dental surgery. The BMJ had peer reviewed the study and decided to accompany it with an editorial, which in those days were anonymous, underlining that the technique was dangerous and should not be used.3

    The Drummond-Jackson case

    You cannot libel a technique, but unfortunately for the BMJ one man—a Harley Street dentist called Stanley Drummond-Jackson—was particularly associated with the technique. He managed to convince the courts that the articles were defamatory of him.

    Five days after the two articles were published the journal received a letter from Drummond-Jackson’s lawyers alleging grave defamation and that his professional reputation was severely damaged. The lawyers wanted the BMJ to unreservedly withdraw all imputations, make an agreed statement …

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