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Feature Libel laws and scientific debate

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

BMJ 2010; 340 doi: (Published 10 March 2010) Cite this as: BMJ 2010;340:c1227

Rapid Response:

How to reform libel to protect scientific debate?

I’m delighted to see Michael O’Donnell contribute to this
debate. I’ve read both of the books that Michael mentions,
and Hall of Mirrors is a marvellous book—a cracking read
that is full of wisdom and acute observations on medicine.
As well as centring on libel it anticipates the arguments
over evidence based medicine. Somebody should republish it.

Ironically I was directed to the book by the BMJ’s libel
lawyer at the same (expensive) consultation where he told me
we’d have to give in on a case--not because we were wrong but
because we couldn’t prove that we were right. Finding the
book was more than enough for the financial loss--especially
as I didn’t have to pay it.

I was at the mass lobby for libel reform at the House of
Commons yesterday, and there is clearly strong momentum for
reform--with all three parties supporting it.

Fiona Godlee spoke powerfully at the meeting, and the
question arises as to how scientific debate should be
protected. One way would be to give privilege to peer
reviewed research, but a) peer review is a dubious process,
b) it’s hard to define what constitutes peer review, and c)
it wouldn’t protect scientific debate that is not peer
reviewed—including, for example, Simon Singh’s piece on
chiropractors that has driven much of the call for reform.

A better method will surely be to promote the public
interest defence to the point where almost anything could be
said without fear of libel in debates on science, politics,
the environment, and any issues that are truly in the public
interest--unlike tittle tattle on film stars.

Competing interests:
I'm the author of the
article to which this
rapid response refers,
and I'm an enthusiast for
libel reform.

Competing interests: No competing interests

24 March 2010
Richard Smith
Clpahm, London SW4 0LD