Libel reform has become increasingly relevant in scientific research and journalism in the UK and Ireland, as highlighted in recent times by the high profile case of Simon Singh. Libel laws have been accused of intimidating journalists, scientists and publishers into silence for fear of legal persecution. The effect has been dubbed "libel chill" and the Libel Reform Campaign argues 'Freedom to criticise and question, in strong terms and without malice, is the cornerstone of argument and debate, whether in scholarly journals, on websites, in newspapers or elsewhere. Our current libel laws inhibit debate and stifle free expression. They discourage writers from tackling important subjects and thereby deny us the right to read about them.'
Don't miss this pivotal event, as some of the most important figures in the libel reform campaign come to Science Gallery...
Simon Singh, who successfully defended himself after a two year libel battle with the British Chiropractic Association
Cardiologist Peter Wilmshurst, who is currently being sued for libel in the biggest ongoing medical libel case.
Graduate student in TCD's School of Law Oisin Tobin will add the Irish perspective and how this could be affecting Irish research sooner rather than later.
MC'd by Irish broadcasting icon, Myles Dungan.
Why should you care?
English libel laws have been internationally criticised for placing an undue burden on the defendant, both financial (the costs in England are 140 times the European average, and embarrassingly Ireland is a close second) and procedural (the defendant is considered guilty until they prove themselves innocent). Irish libel laws have similar problems.
Simon Singh is a well-respected science writer who was sued for commenting on the inappropriateness of chiropractic treatment for infant illnesses in an article in The Guardian. In the article, Singh criticised the BCA for claiming that its members could use spinal manipulation to treat children with colic, ear infections, asthma, sleeping and feeding conditions, and prolonged crying. Singh described the treatments as "bogus" and based on insuffcient evidence, and criticised the BCA for "happily promoting" them. The BCA denies these criticisms and maintains that the efficacy of chiropractic treatments is well documented.
Whereas Simon Singh's libel case was an attempt to block certain commentary on chiropractic medical interventions, other libel cases are threatening scientific research at the source. Peter Wilmshurst is a cardiologist who conducted a clinical trial of a particular heart surgery device for a specific condition. When the trial showed no effect, he commented that one possible explanation is that the surgical device is itself ineffective. He is now being sued personally by the manufacturers of the device and risks bankruptcy defending his comments and upholding his Hippocratic Oath. If this is allowed to stand we may end up with a frightening scenario where only positive results will be published.
See Aoife McLysaght (Science Gallery Leonardo and TCD Genetics Lecturer) give a 5 minute rundown of the situation here.
Follow along on Twitter at #libelreform
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