Thursday, 15 October 2009

BCA libels itself

Throughout their libel action against Simon Singh, the British Chiropractic Association have shown themselves astonishingly adept at scoring own goals. If they were a football team, their opponents would have nothing to do but stand around watching them repeatedly fire the ball into their own net. Today - shocked, no doubt, by the unexpected decision in Simon's favour - they issued a press release denying that they were engaged in an attempt to muzzle genuine criticism. It was merely "a simple libel claim based on the fact that the BCA was maliciously attacked by Dr. Singh in the Guardian newspaper."

As was swiftly pointed out to them, this in itself constituted an apparent libel against Singh - the assertion of a "fact" (which would need to be justified) that Singh had "maliciously" attacked them. Should he choose to countersue - and assuming that Mr Justice Eady was being consistent with his earlier rulings, of course - the BCA would be forced to prove malice on the part of Simon Singh. This would be as least as difficult as the challenge posed to Simon himself, to prove that the BCA knowingly misled the public as to the efficacy of certain chiropractic therapies. See Jack of Kent for more on this.

It probably won't come to that, if only because the BCA have swiftly (and rather clumsily) re-written their press release. Now it is "a simple claim based on the fact that the BCA was libelled by Dr Singh" - still inaccurate, strictly speaking (the fact of libel has yet to be established) but not really defamatory. Despite today's flurry of excitement, I doubt it will produce much more than temporary embarrassment (and longer-term ridicule) for the BCA. Of possibly greater significance may be a statement made by the BCA's president Richard Brown in the organisation's magazine, referred to on his blog by the renegade chiropractor Richard Lanigan.

Here it is:

The BCA can no longer condone those who employ dubious practice methods and seek to portray chiropractic as a profession dedicated to upholding the fundamentalist principles of its founder. To be regarded as a progressive association, the BCA should adopt a vision,articulate values and promote an identity that will protect its members interests, encourage best practice and command respect from those whose opinions influence health policy and practise both on the national and international stage.

Lanigan notes that this sounds rather similar to what Simon Singh was saying. "I guess he did not go as far as calling chiropractic bogus, but is it any wonder people would think chiropractic was bogus with the mixed messages the BCA sends out through their leaders?" Well, quite. Let me just spell it out for any judges at the back who might be having trouble following, though. "The BCA can no longer condone those who employ dubious practice methods" means, if it means anything, that they have in the past condoned those who employ dubious practice methods. Such as? Well how about this (I quote from a well-known article published by the Guardian in 2008):

The British Chiropractic Association claims that their members can help treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying, even though there is not a jot of evidence.

Sounds pretty dubious to me. Or how about "the BCA can no longer... seek to portray chiropractic as a profession dedicated to upholding the fundamentalist principles of its founder". Why ever not? Why should they wish to distance themselves from their own founder? Can you imagine Rowan Williams standing up and saying "the Church of England can no longer... seek to portray Christianity as a religion dedicated to upholding the fundamentalist teachings of Jesus Christ"? But, in case you don't know the answer to this puzzle, here, once more, is the writer of the well-known article to enlighten us:

You might be surprised to know that the founder of chiropractic therapy, Daniel David Palmer, wrote that, "99% of all diseases are caused by displaced vertebrae". In the 1860s, Palmer began to develop his theory that the spine was involved in almost every illness because the spinal cord connects the brain to the rest of the body. Therefore any misalignment could cause a problem in distant parts of the body.

In fact, Palmer's first chiropractic intervention supposedly cured a man who had been profoundly deaf for 17 years. His second treatment was equally strange, because he claimed that he treated a patient with heart trouble by correcting a displaced vertebra.

Embarrassing, huh?

Here's a question. If it's libellous for Simon Singh to write that the BCA were (18 months ago) "happily promoting bogus treatments", how is it not libellous for Richard Brown to state that the BCA has been condoning "those who promote dubious practice methods"? If anything, Brown's words are the stronger. As I've explained before, and contrary to Eady's baffling determination, the natural meaning of "happily" (as in "happily promotes bogus treatments") is, at most, lazily or negligently: it does not mean "deliberately". But the word "condone" does imply a degree of knowledge on the BCA's part. You can't condone something you aren't aware of. Here, then, is a published admission by the organisation's own leader that, in the past (up until now, indeed, if Brown's words are given their natural meaning) the BCA has regarded with indulgence those of its members who employed "dubious" methods. Is "dubious" a weaker word than "bogus"? In context, I would argue that they mean almost precisely the same thing.

If Simon Singh's remarks constitute a libel against the BCA, so do the BCA president's. Perhaps they should give up on Simon and train their sputtering legal guns on themselves.