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Feature Libel laws and scientific debate

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

BMJ 2010; 340 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.c1227 (Published 10 March 2010) Cite this as: BMJ 2010;340:c1227

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Wimpole Street Dentist, Libel & Dental Anaesthesia

Dr Stanley Drummond-Jackson who is described as a "Harley Street dentist"[1],had his practice at "53 Wimpole Street" in London[2].In addition to his interest in general anaesthesia,alongwith a Consultant Oral Surgeon he made a film on venepuncture techniques for general practice which was "accepted by the British Medical Association"[2].

Richard Smith says that Drummond-Jackson "managed to convince the courts that the articles were defamatory of him"[1].So it appears, he was successful at the court of first instance.However, Smith's subsequent reference to a settlement "after 35 days in court"[1] gives the impression that Drummond-Jackson had not convinced the court as indicated earlier.In fact, it is reported that the "case was never completed as the judge recommended each party admonish the other for all blame and agree to disagree"[2].

With reference to the BMJ's 1969 article, it is said the authors "castigated Drummond Jackson and his technique"[2] and that the "technique the authors of the paper had used in their research (which was not that technique promulgated by SAAD) was condemned by their conclusions"[2].

As decided in Drummond-Jackson –v- B.M.A. [1970] 1 WLR 688 and relied upon by the Court of Appeal in Dr Mervyn Patterson v ICN Photonics Limited [2003] EWCA Civ 343 at para.21,"It is well-established that the words may be defamatory simply because they impute at least incompetence on the part of the trader or manufacturer in the way in which he runs his business"[3]. Based on the above passage alone,I think, it is reasonably clear that Drummond-Jackson had more than sufficient and just legal grounds to pursue an action in libel against the BMA/BMJ. Drummond-Jackson's position is further vindicated by the the Court of Appeal's dismissal of the BMJ's interim appeal in "Februray 1970"[1].

In the circumstances,despite its historical significance,Drummond-Jackson case is probably not the correct or best example to support the notion that libel laws stifle scientific debate. Had the BMJ not "castigated"[2] Drummond-Jackson in their offending paper, he may well have accepted the offer to debate this issue in the BMJ.I also wonder whether Drummond-Jackson was ever afforded the opportunity to comment upon the offending BMJ article before its publication;perhaps not.

I believe, castigating and provocative remarks are not the way to proceed if journal editors are serious about avoiding libel, and above all,genuinely keen to initiate an informed debate about controversial scientific issues.

Smith also confirms that the case "took a heavy toll on both parties"[1];in addition to the financial toll on the parties, Stanley Drummond-Jackson "died suddenly in 1975"[4].

References

[1]Richard Smith. An old battle: England’s libel laws versus scientific debateBMJ 2010; 340: c1227

[2]History of SAAD(http://www.saad.org.uk/history)

[3]Dr Mervyn Patterson v ICN Photonics Limited [2003] EWCA Civ 343(http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2003/343.html)

[4]Anesthesia Progress;JOURNAL OF THE AMERICAN DENTAL SOCIETY OF ANESTHESIOLOGY:ISSN 0003-3006(http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2235751/pdf/anesthprog00109-...)

Competing interests:
None declared

Competing interests: No competing interests

22 March 2010
Jay Ilangaratne
Founder
www.medical-journals.com