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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:

Update the libel laws.

The libel laws in England are very friendly to the plaintiff, the
person who claims to have been libelled. The fact that a defamatory
statement is true is not an adequate defence. Because of the flawed nature
of our libel laws, cases that originated in the United States or Europe
are frequently pursued in London, where the plaintiff has a greater chance
of winning the case. This alone suggests a need to update English libel

Scientific debate is a special case. Unfortunately, deliberate fraud
in science is not a great rarity, and it is in the interests of both
scientists and the general public that fraud be denounced. Denunciation is
particularly important when the fraudulent data are capable of adversely
affecting the treatment of patients. When fraud is denounced this
inevitably defames the perpetrator. Even to say that "the results are not
reproducible" implies that the investigator might be dishonest and a
complaint of libel might be made. The tabloid press is quite frequently
sued for libel but has the financial resources to cope with such lawsuits.
By contrast, scholarly journals cannot afford costly legal battles. Surely
the best way to preserve the freedom of the medical press would be to
grant privilege to such journals. This is already enjoyed by the General
Medical Council and should be extended so that the public good is served
by the right to conduct scientific debate without fear of libel.

Competing interests:
None declared

Competing interests: No competing interests

23 March 2010
Alexander SD Spiers
Professor of Medicine (Retired)