Sunday, 20 September 2009

Seeing Simon

This lunchtime the Heresiarch spent an enjoyable hour or so in a very small room at the Highcliff Hotel in Bournemouth, listening to Simon Singh and others talk about science and the libel laws. There were only 24 seats, and at least twice that number crammed in, giving the whole meeting, as Churchill said of the House of Commons, a sense of urgency and crowd. Fortunately, being pathologically early (as per Prateek's recommendation) I had a good seat. I think I may have been the only non-LibDem in the room. If it had been the Labour conference there would have been men with machine guns there to keep out interlopers, but I saw no visible security - even at the BIC itself. It would appear that the LibDems aren't important enough, yet, for anyone to want to blow them up. Long may that continue.

The meeting was organised by Sense about Science, and also featured Ben Goldacre, Nick Cohen and Dr Evan Harris. Simon was the main draw, of course. He spoke entertainingly about his ongoing struggle with the British Chiropractic Association about his right to use the word "bogus" of claims that spinal manipulation can treat childhood colic and other afflictions having little obvious connection with back trouble. He described how being sued for libel "saps all your will and energy", forcing you to put other things on hold - and admitted that the best result he could hope for (an improbable victory) would still leave him £50,000 out of pocket. The law is stacked against the defendant so heavily that backing down and apologising is "the only common-sense thing to do". As a result, scientific articles making important points are gutted before going to the printers, or never printed at all. That's why he feels a "responsibility to carry on fighting", despite the high cost to himself.

What astonished me is how cheerful he manages to be. He didn't seem "sapped of will or energy" at all; his speech was full of jokes and delivered with the confidence of a battle cry. I was able to grab a few words with him after the meeting and apologised for trying to lure him onto the path of common sense. If no one is prepared to challenge the legal bullies, then change is unlikely to come any time soon. Simon's case has galvanised a large and diverse body of opinion about the particular issue of how libel laws impact on scientific process - which isn't the only objection to the laws as they currently apply, but it is perhaps the one of greatest public importance. He might indeed be (as Nick Cohen was to imply), "mad to fight a libel action in London" - but a high-profile case like his raises awareness more than any number of spiked articles or reluctant apologies. Even if he loses (and he will, if Mr Justice Eady gets to make the decision) there's a good chance now of something positive coming out of it.

Next up was Mr Bad Science himself. Ben Goldacre described the present state of the libel laws as "a serious public health problem". He contrasted the timidity with which journalists and even writers in learned journals are now forced to proceed with the cut and thrust of debate at scientific conferences, where participants "tear each other to pieces". And he referred to his own libel difficulties - he has successfully fended off an action by Matthias Rath, a man who claimed to heal AIDS using vitamin pills. Libel plaintiffs, he noted, used their wealth to intimidate the less wealthy - but Goldacre himself was "so unwealthy I had nothing to lose".

Nick Cohen was less narrowly focussed on science, and more on the "national shame" caused by the "imperial" approach to jurisdiction taken by British judges. It was, he claimed, "difficult to make a case for press freedom in Britain" - an exaggeration, I think, as was his suggestion that "the press in Britain is dying". I hope not - and indeed, he revealed that the Observer prbably won't be shut down after all. He was on firmer ground discussing the abuse of the courts by "borderline criminals" like Robert Maxwell or the Saudi billionaire (and sometime al-Qaeda funder) Khalid bin Mahfouz, whose recent death went unremarked except by Private Eye. Mahfouz was responsible, Cohen noted, for the pulping of some 40 books over the years. But you can't libel the dead, so why the silence still from most of the British media? Cohen had no suggestions. Perhaps libel law was not the only weapon he had at his disposal.

Dr Evan Harris, who spoke last, had some kind words for the campaigners' enemy-in-chief Eady, even getting some nods from the room when he expressed approval of the Mosley judgement. But the Heresiarch's readers have probably heard quite enough about that subject. He concentrated on the Parliamentary campaign he is spearheading to introduce some long overdue reforms in the law of libel, and he sounded quite optimistic (although he noted that there have been intense lobbying efforts to protect the status quo). This may be another opportunity for LibDem/ Conservative co-operation. Harris noted that Conservatives had shown a greater interest in the subject than Labour. He also sounded strangely upbeat at the disappointing proposals that the government is now consulting on, which amount to little more than introducing a principle of single-date publication for online material. A necessary change, indeed, but one which would scarcely begin to address the issues under discussion today.

There was no sign of the great Dawk, who was speaking at the conference later (I wonder if the empty chair at the front was reserved for him). When he did make his pitch at the main event, he revealed that he had voted LibDem at every election since the party was founded. Well, I never had him down as a Tory, regrettably. But I must say I'm hugely delighted to discover that he was never taken in by Tony Blair. That's what comes of being a stern no-nonsense rationalist, I suppose. The motion - which calls for reforms to insure a "better balance" between "responsible journalism" and "vested interests" - was passed, obviously. But then so was the motion to ban airbrushing.

An added bonus came at the end, with an intervention from the wonderful Belinda Brooks-Gordon of Birkbeck College, who talks so much sense about Britain's sex laws, and who described the chilling effect of libel law in academia, where she works. All the cool people, it seems, are suddenly Lib Dems.