Editor's Choice

Reform our libel laws, but not our NHS

BMJ 2010; 340 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.c1404 (Published 11 March 2010) Cite this as: BMJ 2010;340:c1404
  1. Fiona Godlee, editor, BMJ
  1. fgodlee{at}bmj.com

    We need to reform England’s libel laws, not because suppression of scientific debate is getting worse—it may be; it’s hard to tell—but because it has been going on for so long. Years before Wilmshurst v NMT Medical (BMJ 2010;340:c967 doi:10.1136/bmj.c967) and Singh v the chiropractors (BMJ 2009;339:b4269 doi:10.1136/bmj.b4269), there was BMJ v Drummond-Jackson, one of the longest running libel cases in legal history.

    As former BMJ editor Richard Smith recounts (doi:10.1136/bmj.c1227), Drummond-Jackson, a Harley street dentist, sued the BMA (as owners of the BMJ) in 1969 for publishing a study critical of a technique with which he was closely associated. The case cost the BMJ a quarter of a million pounds in legal fees alone, equivalent to several million pounds today, before it was eventually settled out of court.

    The weekly account of the trial is available from the archive on bmj.com (BMJ 1970;1:509-10 doi:10.1136/bmj.1.5694.507). Smith quotes from this account the words of Lord Denning, a famous former law lord, “It would be a sorry day if scientists were to be deterred from publishing their findings for fear of libel actions. So long as they refrain from personal attacks, they should be free to criticise the systems and techniques of others. It is in the interest of truth itself. Were it otherwise no scientific journal would be safe.”

    Some believe that the sorry day is already here. Either way it’s clear that under the current law, as Smith says, “the side with the deepest pockets can almost always see off the other side.” This is no way to get to the truth and no way to serve patients or the public interest.

    Politicians are beginning to get the message. In December justice secretary Jack Straw announced plans to cap the level of fees payable in successful defamation cases; the Ministry of Justice has set up a working group on libel with a mixture of lawyers, journalists, and scientists (www.justice.gov.uk/news/announcement270110a.htm), and more than 200 MPs have now signed the early day motion calling for libel reform. You can help to convince those who haven’t by signing the petition at libelreform.org.

    And so to the other great issue of the day—the NHS and the market. Will markets improve quality and reduce costs more than central planning ever could? We have views on both sides (doi:10.1136/bmj.c1297 doi:10.1136/bmj.c1300 doi:10.1136/bmj.c1299 doi:10.1136/bmj.c1302) and lobbies of every hue including, in opposite corners, the BMA (doi:10.1136/bmj.c1357) and Nurses for Reform (doi:10.1136/bmj.c1371). Are we witnessing the cold blooded dismemberment of the NHS, as some would like? Or is the market just being used to shake things up a bit, as Nigel Hawkes implies is the case for primary care (doi:10.1136/bmj.c1154). Making the NHS compete with private providers may have improved some aspects of care, but I see no evidence that it has improved quality and efficiency overall. And I’m not convinced by Stephen Smith’s suggestion (doi:10.1136/bmj.c1299) that markets will drive down the use of expensive secondary care. With foundation trusts touting for business and primary care trusts still unequal to their task, I would say quite the opposite.

    Notes

    Cite this as: BMJ 2010;340:c1404

    Footnotes