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Observations Medicine and the Media

The chilling effect of English libel law

BMJ 2009; 339 doi: (Published 28 October 2009) Cite this as: BMJ 2009;339:b4429
  1. Richard Hurley, technical editor
  1. 1BMJ
  1. rhurley{at}

    Reform is necessary, reports Richard Hurley, to stop expensive and unfair UK law preventing open scientific discussion here—and around the world

    English libel law creates a “chill factor” that results in censorship, and it must be reformed. This was the conclusion of a recent panel discussion about science journalism and libel law at City University, London.

    “Everything you read is the product of legal negotiation,” said Tracey Brown, managing director of the lobby group Sense About Science. It’s not just the Sun writing about celebrities’ knickers, she said; even “the BMJ uses a lawyer on a weekly basis.”

    Fear of being sued prevents some articles that are written from making it on to the page and many more from ever being written. And those articles that are published are likely to have been “gutted of any real content,” said the science writer Simon Singh.

    The biggest problem with English libel law is the cost of mounting a defence, which can spiral to millions of pounds, explained Singh. He should know because he’s currently embroiled in a case brought against him by the British Chiropractic Association over an article he wrote for the Guardian (BMJ 2009;339:b4269, doi:10.1136/bmj.b4269).

    “Even if you win you could still lose £100 000 and a year or two of your career,” Singh said, because the costs the judge awards rarely cover the actual outlay. The law …

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