BREAKING: BCA drops libel case against Simon Singh!

By Phil Plait | April 15, 2010 11:04 am

london_fireworksGreat news: the BCA has dropped its ill-conceived lawsuit against journalist and skeptic Simon Singh!

WooHOO! My huge and hearty CONGRATS to Simon!

The British Chiropractic Association, an umbrella organization for chiropractors in Britain, had sued Simon for libel because he had written in a newspaper article that they "happily promote bogus remedies".

They said this was defamatory, and that Singh meant they knew that they were lying about the remedies. If you read what Simon wrote that’s clearly not true; he was obviously saying that they were happy to promote remedies that happened to be bogus, not that they necessarily knew what they were promoting was bogus. What Simon certainly was saying is that a lot of the so-called "remedies" chiropractors claim to work simply don’t, and have no evidence at all to support them. But he never said the BCA was knowingly lying to the public to promote quackery.

Simon SinghThey sued anyway, in what was a very clear attempt to silence critics. They didn’t try to defend their practices, or show how what they claim really does have medicinal value. Instead, they sued someone to shut him up and create a chilling effect in journalism.

That, as it now turns out, was a bogus remedy for the problem.

Like many alt-med placebos, it did seem to work for a while. In an initial hearing, a judge ruled that the BCA had a case, agreeing with the BCA that Simon’s words could be interpreted as them knowing they were quacks. This set the skeptic community in an uproar, and we made quite a stink about it. A group in the UK called Sense About Science set up an effort for libel reform to help support Simon and to get the word out about the atrocious and draconian libel laws in the UK.

As the case became more public, the BCA reacted. Eventually, they did make a lame attempt to defend their practices, but that was soundly torn to shreds by real doctors and skeptics. It read an awful lot like the kind of garbage astrologers, antivaxxers, homeopaths, and other nonsense-peddlers try to push on people when trying to defend their evidence-free claims.

Then things got worse when chiropractors all over Britain started panicking about the way they advertise. Again, instead of actually doing something useful, or defending their practice, an association of chiropractors warned practitioners to take down their websites. Isn’t that odd? Instead of fixing any mistakes, they were told to stop advertising by their own umbrella group. Hmmm.

Finally, last week, a wise judge ruled that Simon actually did have a defense, and could argue that his words were an opinion, and not a statement of fact as narrowly defined by the previous judge. That meant that not only could the case continue, but that Simon could mount an actual and strong defense.

We skeptics held our breaths, but we were pretty sure what would happen next, and we were right: the BCA caved. Folded. Bent. Dislocated, you might say.

They dropped the case, and it’s over.

Well, kinda. Actually, there are a lot of unresolved things here. One is that Simon is out over £100,000 of his own money. Had this gone to court and he won, the BCA would have had to pay his expenses. That’s a pretty strong incentive on their part to have dropped the case, not-so-incidentally. I’ll note that fellow skeptic Ben Goldacre says Simon may go after the BCA for costs, something I would dearly love to see.

Second, the libel laws in the UK are still truly awful. I hope that the libel reform groups there keep the pressure on the government to look over those laws and drag them from the 17th into the 21st century. Don’t forget to show your support (even if you’re not from the UK)!

And third, I wonder how this will affect the BCA. Will they be more careful? Will they review their practices, going over them carefully to see which ones are backed by scientific reviews and testing, and which ones may be nothing more than thinly-veiled nonsense that not only do not help but can in fact harm or even kill patients?

Right. Given that after this long, humiliating episode they still have the gall to claim they were even partially vindicated should tell you just how far removed from reality they are.

Given the craven nature of this entire episode by the BCA, and how it exposed them for who they are, and how it put chiropractors who promote bogus treatments on the defense all over England, and how it raised so much awareness about all this, I think Nelson sums things up best.

And as a final note… we have won here, and won big. Have no doubts this was a huge victory for science, for skepticism, and for free speech. But the purveyors of nonsense are still out there, still promoting their wares that are harmful and even deadly. This event will put wind under our wings, and we must use that to continue the fight. The anti-reality forces will never rest, and neither must we.

Fireworks over London image used under Creative Commons license from wobble-san’s Flickr photostream.

Comments (52)

  1. Great news indeed! :D

  2. So, um, does English law have something equivalent to the term “vexatious litigator”? (someone who files suits to harass, regardless of the merits of the suits)

  3. Plutonium being from Pluto

    YEE-EEES!!! Excellent! Wonderful news! Congrats to Simon Singh & his supporters. :-)

    (Raises & drinks beer* to celebrate Simon Singh’s triumph over the homeopathetic** woo. :-) )

    ——————————————

    * & that’s definitely NOT a watered down homeopathetic** beer with one drop of alcohol in a can full of water either! ;-)

    ** Not a typo this time! ;-)

  4. Marc

    “We skeptics held our breaths, but we were pretty sure what would happen next, and we were right: the BCA caved. Folded. Bent. Dislocated, you might say.”

    …subluxated?

  5. RMcbride

    I’m so glad to hear that this went well in the end, but that’s quite a bit of rubbish.

  6. Tom

    I think it’s worth stating that, while you did link to the http://www.libelreform.org/ site and said, of course, that the fight against anti-reality goes on, it’s very, very important that people, especially UK readers continue to specifically support the Libel Reform campaign.

    With the end of the most recent high profile example of what is wrong with the current laws and it could be easy for people to relax on this, but of course this was not the first case and won’t be the last until changes are actually made.

  7. While I’m happy that Simon won, it really stinks that it cost him £100,000 (over $150,000 US) to get to this point. If I were the one being sued and I saw that it would cost me over $100,000 to defend myself, I’d likely either have to settle (knowing all along that I was right but “admitting” publicly that I was wrong) or go bankrupt. Either way, there’s a strong financial incentive for people to *NOT* speak out and *NOT* rock any boats lest they anger the wrong people. (The same dynamic exists in the RIAA lawsuits. Most people can’t afford to defend themselves and so settle regardless of whether or not they pirated any music.)

    I’ll be happy when Simon gets his legal fees back and the laws are changed to prevent this kind of thing from happening again.

  8. Plutonium being from Pluto

    @ ^The BCA did have to pay his costs right? I sure hope so!

    EDIT : Oh. Okay having read the full post again I see that’s not the case. Yet. Hopefully he will indeed :

    … go after the BCA for costs, something I would dearly love to see.

    Me too. If so, I guess it *still* isn’t quite over yet.

  9. Congratulations! A great victory for Simon!

    I would love too to see him going after the BCA for costs.

    A great terrific news!

  10. timebinder

    I guess the BCA couldn’t “back” up its claims. Buh-dum-dum-chzzzzzzzz.

  11. so far a great year for skepticism. First the antivaxxers get mauled as Wakefield gets drawn and quartered and now this! You skeptic luminaries who act as the glue for the expanding skeptic community, things look, at least for the time being, like this stuff is working.

  12. mkgreevey

    Glad he won, but I’m confused by this:
    “Finally, last week, a wise judge ruled that Simon actually did have a defense, and could argue that his words were an opinion, and not a statement of fact as narrowly defined by the previous judge.”
    Wasn’t Simon stating a scientific fact, i.e.:
    “What Simon certainly was saying is that a lot of the so-called “remedies” chiropractors claim to work simply don’t, and have no evidence at all to support them.”
    That just seems…backwards to me. Or is that what’s at the heart of this effort to reform the libel laws, i.e. you can’t use scientific facts to prove something if it’s defamatory to someone else?

  13. Brian

    The British Chiropractic Association happily promotes bogus treatments even though there is not a jot of evidence.
    The British Chiropractic Association happily promotes bogus treatments even though there is not a jot of evidence.
    The British Chiropractic Association happily promotes bogus treatments even though there is not a jot of evidence.

    Bogus bogus bogus bogus bogus!

  14. IVAN3MAN_AT_LARGE

    Tree Lobsters (#2):

    So, um, does English law have something equivalent to the term “vexatious litigator”?

    See: Vexatious litigation — United Kingdom.

  15. Moxiequz

    This is wonderful news. Simon Singh did an immense public service – at great personal sacrifice – by fighting back on this issue. The guy’s a hero.

    Just a nitpicky note – I believe the cost to Simon was actually over £200,000 rather than £100,000.

    Anyhow – Whoo! and Hoo!

  16. The Guardian has restored Simon Singh’s original article. Digg and reddit at will.

  17. XMark

    It seems the BCA has just discovered the Streisand effect :)

  18. Michael Swanson

    What a great day! I want to thank Simon Singh for sacrificing so much to see this through. He is a hero to those who value free speech and skepticism.

  19. Definitely a good day for Simon and for like-minded people.

  20. Ginger Yellow

    Glad he won, but I’m confused by this:
    “Finally, last week, a wise judge ruled that Simon actually did have a defense, and could argue that his words were an opinion, and not a statement of fact as narrowly defined by the previous judge.”
    Wasn’t Simon stating a scientific fact, i.e.:
    “What Simon certainly was saying is that a lot of the so-called “remedies” chiropractors claim to work simply don’t, and have no evidence at all to support them.”
    That just seems…backwards to me. Or is that what’s at the heart of this effort to reform the libel laws, i.e. you can’t use scientific facts to prove something if it’s defamatory to someone else?

    The point the appeal court made was that “not a jot of evidence” was inherently a value judgement, as evidence (especially in science) must be reliable to merit the term. And a value judgement is an opinion.

    Also, I would add, with regard to the vexatious litigator comment, that it wouldn’t apply in this case. After all, Singh could still have lost the case if it had gone back to the high court. Fair comment is not an absolute defence – it can be defeated by proving malice. Or, for that matter, proving that the opinion was not honestly held.

  21. Kenny

    Simon will get his money back one way or the other. If the BCA don’t, then I’m sure we will.

  22. Deep Thought

    @ Brian #13

    “I don’t think it ought to be blasphemy, just saying bogus…bogus bogus bogus bogus”

  23. Alex Murdoch

    WOOT! WOOT!
    Great news Simon! Congratulations! I hope that the skeptical community in the UK throw you a great big party to celebrate this victory! It would have been nice to see the actual case go to court and have it thrown back in the face of the BCU.
    Is there any way we can donate to Simon’s expenses?

  24. QuietDesperation

    Well, *I’ll* say it here in the States just because I can.

    “The chiropractors happily promote remedies that they *know* are fake.”

    There. USA! USA! :-)

  25. Jero

    Excelente noticia !!!

    It made my day.

  26. Passerby

    SIMONNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNN SINGHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH YEAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!

  27. condorman

    >>we have won here, and won big.

    Well, no. At least, not in the way I would like. As happy as I am for Simon Singh, this is not a resounding victory for skepticism. By dropping the case, the BCA has effectively prevented the probable ruling against them from becoming settled case law.

    The recent ruling that the statements in the initial article are statements of opinion is only a partial victory. My understanding of UK legal practice is murky, but it seems to me that the larger issues implicit in libel cases, particularly with respect to shifting the burden of proof to the plaintiff, remain unresolved.

    This is great for Simon personally, in the sense that it puts a halt to his mounting legal costs. From a macroscopic perspective, I would rather the case had proceeded and established a clear precedent for libel cases in the future.

    I’ll certainly raise a glass today, but my enthusiasm for this result is tempered for reasons very similar to the three points of caution in Phil’s original post. When Parliament does something to change the fundamental nature of libel in the UK, I’ll buy the first magnum of champagne myself.

  28. bubba

    truth rocks!! ooo! ooo! ooo! ooo!

  29. Mr. D

    Great news. Hopefully some good will come from this case and something will be done about the UK’s absurd libel laws.

  30. armillary

    Truly excellent news. Even though we never got a legal precedent, the Court of Appeals ruling is as strongly worded as you could wish, and worded so that any scientific case can use the “honest opinion” defense, using it as the precedent. Hopefully this will help the other currently ongoing cases.

    The costs will most likely be recovered too: Via blogger Jack of Kent, who has been covering this case from a legal point of view for some time:

    —–
    Barrister and skeptic Simon Bradshaw has helpfully pointed out in the comments below about Civil Procedure Rule 38.6:

    38.6— Liability for costs

    (1) Unless the court orders otherwise, a claimant who discontinues is liable for the costs which a defendant against whom the claimant discontinues incurred on or before the date on which notice of discontinuance was served on the defendant.

    We need further information before we know for certain that Rule 38.6(1) applies, but I suspect that this would at least be the starting point.
    —-

    Simon is unlikely to recover all his costs, but he has a good case for getting most of it back. Those proceedings can also take some time though, and of course the rule doesn’t cover them…

  31. PsyberDave

    This pleases me.

  32. JT

    Although I’m fairly sure nothing will happen, I’d like to see the original bogus ruling by a certain bogus judge receive a little more scrutiny by the legal system he made a mockery of. While I do acknowledge that judges ought to have the ability to try cases without fear of running afoul of politics, surely a judgment THAT far removed from the obvious reality of the situation ought to bring up the question of his fitness to perform his duties.

  33. I will continue to be stunned by the stupidity of people in dealing with the public. In this case it worked for the benefit of the the good. But from the point of view of the BCA – if they had just shut up, ignored Singh the whole thing would have been a blip in the eye of the general public.
    Instead they brought it up several notches in the public eye with a lawsuit. This brought all of their foolish practices to light. Their ability to defend them was even more pathetic. And in the end they are out a great deal of money and lost even more respect and trust.
    Yet another stunning example of public relations stupidity.
    I am glad this one turned out to be a win for the good guys.

  34. William

    A quick question, The plethora of evidence which was shredded. OK. So my question is now do the BCA know that the treatments are now properly bogus can they still claim that they are not bogus or that they don’t know they are bogus or as I suspect still believe that the plethora of evidence still stands.

  35. Trebuchet

    @ no 36 breadfred: The BCA link is in Phil’s original post as well. Doesn’t hurt to repeat it though.

    @ no 34 William: Good point. They now have no excuse for not knowing their treatments are invalid and need to stop advertising and providing them. They won’t, of course.

    Congratulations to Simon Singh, and thanks for fighting the good fight.

  36. Chief

    I do hope that the pressure to change the laws in the UK will be continued till the voice of reason can speak without being shut down.

  37. BradC

    Sooo, something I’ve been pondering from the beginning of this case, concerning the two interpretations of “happily promotes bogus treatments”:

    “happily promotes treatments it knows to be ineffective” (knowingly promoting fraud, the libel claim) vs
    “happily promotes treatments that happen to be effective” (stupidly promoting ineffective treatments, Simon’s claim of what he meant)

    My question is: shouldn’t Simon be able to claim *either position*, if he believes it to be true?

    I happen to believe that the bulk of these guys probably KNOW their treatments are quackery, just like the classic “snake-oil salesman” who bottles up plain old fish oil but sells it as a magic cure-all.

    This is my own personal blind speculation, though, and isn’t based on any inside information. Please don’t sue me! :)

  38. jcm

    Purveyors of woo: 0
    Reality: 1

    and


    source:paraorkut.com

  39. Steve in Dublin

    BradC @ #39

    I happen to believe that the bulk of these guys probably KNOW their treatments are quackery, just like the classic “snake-oil salesman” who bottles up plain old fish oil but sells it as a magic cure-all.

    In reality, this turns out to be the other way around. The majority of alt-med practitioners believe quite passionately in their particular brand of woo (though they may well scoff at all the other ‘not invented here’ woo). It is only a small minority who are akin to being snake oil salesmen, and are in it solely for the money, aware of the fact that it doesn’t work.

    If only Simon had originally written ‘blithely’ (what he really meant) instead of ‘happily’, the libel suit might never have happened. But hey, hindsight is always 20/20 vision, no? And if Simon can recoup most of his £200,000 outlay, then maybe it will all have been worth it to show the woo-meisters that litigation isn’t the answer to legitimate criticism of bogus claims that have no scientific merit.

  40. It is a victory to be sure, but it is only one victory in an ongoing battle that will likely continue for generations to come.

  41. Markle

    Happy day indeed.

    Clearing up some things. Because of rule 38.6, Simon Singh’s solicitor Dougans thinks he’ll be out about £20k after all is done. “‘However well this process goes, Simon is likely to be out of pocket by about £20,000,’ Mr Dougans said. ” If the BCA do not get bitchy in the negotiations, that is.

    Oh, and he and his family will be out 2 years(~5%) of his life and life’s earnings. In what is likely his prime earning and creative years. The rest of us are out the intangible whatever he could have been working on to educate us about during these past 2 years as well. It goes beyond silencing critics and whistle blowers, it deprives society of the benefit of that criticism.

    @ Condorman #28 and armillary #31 Regarding precedent. On the contrary, according to Jack of Kent, it’s because it didn’t go to the Supreme court that a precedent is indeed established by the Court of Appeal.

    One major effect of the discontinuance is that the Court of Appeal decision in Singh v BCA will not face being overturned by the Supreme Court (the former House of Lords).

    The appeal case is, in my view, now binding authority on the High Court that adverse but good faith statements regarding evidence must be treated as having the defence of honest opinion.

    Edit: Now seeing William and Trebuchet’s comments#35&37: The BCA and MCA(McTimmoney Chiro…) are seeing a variation on the Streisand Effect. A good portion of their members are either being investigated for misleading and fraudulent claims on their websites due to the backlash. I wonder if we could call this corollary of Streisand, THE SINGH EFFECT?

  42. Michael Kingsford Gray

    “The Singh Effect”
    Love it!

  43. Clive DuPort

    Maybe somebody could make a film (“movie” to you rum chaps across the pond) of this in a similar vein to “All the President’s Men” to try to claw some money back for our hero, Mr Singh and also show up the BCA for what it is.

  44. Geoff

    A great outcome in this case, but let’s not forget Peter Wilmshurst, who is still under threat.
    http://business.timesonline.co.uk/tol/business/law/article6932252.ece
    He has a great record:
    http://www.healthwatch-uk.org/awardwinners/peterwilmshurst.html

  45. Martha

    Is anyone aware if there are any efforts here in the U.S. to take on the chiroquackers? I would be interested to see what sorts of calims they are making and if those claims violate any state of federal laws.

  46. kevbo

    Well, one enjoyable way to help out Mr Singh is to buy his books (yes, Ivan, he HAS written a few). I’ve been through both the Code Book and Big Bang twice; perhaps it’s time to pick up Trick or Treatment!

  47. Helge

    What you say about chiropractic is obviously your opinion, not statements about facts, sot it is no reason to bother about that. It is no reason to bother about people who do not know what they talk about.

    Helge

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