Thursday, March 11, 2010

Belle de Jour Urges U.K. Libel Reform

Controversial libel laws in the U.K. are the subject of a powerful reform movement, which has gained another supporter and voice of reason: Belle de Jour.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with her, Belle de Jour had been the nom de plume of a celebrated British author, who was also a London call girl for two years.

Last year, Belle revealed she is Dr. Brooke Magnanti, of Bristol, England, a noted scientist. Brooke’s specialist areas are developmental neurotoxicology and cancer epidemiology. She has a PhD in informatics, epidemiology and forensic science and is now working at the Bristol Initiative for Research of Child Health. She is currently part of a team researching the potential effects on babies of their mothers' exposure to toxic chemicals.

It is Brooke in her science hat who has written a thoughtful guest column that appeared in today’s Guardian U.K. Below is the full article. Read it here, or directly at the newspaper’s website:

Libel tourism is a public health risk

By Brooke Magnanti

(Guardian Profile: Brooke Magnanti is the author of Belle de Jour: Diary of a London Call Girl, and works as a scientist in child health at Bristol University. Her areas of research include cancer biostatistics, genetic epidemiology and forensic science), Thursday 11 March 2010 13.35 GMT
Article history

British libel law is being used by corporations from around the world to suppress legitimate reporting of bad science

Legal manual: the British Chiropractic Association is suing science writer Simon Singh over an article he wrote in the Guardian questioning the efficacy of certain chiropractic treatments.

Above Photograph: Corbis

"Last year, I had mumps. I blame the libel laws.

The recent case of Simon Singh being sued by the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) is one example of the out-of-control libel laws in this country, and how they can stop people telling good information from bad. This week is Libel Reform Week and there is no shortage of cases bringing the health risks of such lawsuits to light.

Public discussion – journalism included – involves freely debating topics in the public interest. It is similar to what scientists do in peer-reviewed journals. But because most people don't read those, we depend on trusted sources like Singh to bring the facts and arguments to us.

Libel laws have good reason to exist – to stop irresponsible reporting. However, British laws so favour one side that they can be used to intimidate journalists in other countries: "libel tourism". A US citizen can write for a US paper and be called up before courts here. Hence the likes of the Wall Street Journal considering not selling papers in the UK.

Nor is libel simply a concern of big business and Brangelina.

The international nature of collaboration and publication makes scientists particularly vulnerable. A British cardiologist, Peter Wilmshurst, is being sued by US company NMT Medical after he had questioned the effectiveness of a heart implant. NMT Medical says he accused the firm of research fraud; yet the company is based in Boston, and it was a report on a US-based website that triggered the libel action, Wilmshurst is being sued in the UK.

I can understand his frustration. As an employee of the NHS, research requires a mountain of paperwork. Patient confidentiality must be guaranteed and ethics applications approved. I once spent five months of a year-long project on the paperwork alone. You could be tempted to think if the Trust R&D department eventually green-lights your project, there won't be any further liability problems.

You could be wrong.

The implications of these cases mirror the MMR scare. While epidemiologists such as myself can read Wakefield's original publication and judge whether his conclusions regarding autism were justified, others rely on what is re-reported elsewhere. It was years before that paper was publicly retracted by the Lancet.

Even now, fresh suits threaten the dissemination of knowledge that is widely accepted among scientists. The damage can't be undone. In spite of the retractions, many people still believe a discredited study. This could have a devastating health outcome for a family.

Given the option, wouldn't you choose a treatment that works over one that doesn't? But when a face cream can claim to be "inspired by the science of genes" while real scientists are tied up in the courts, it's little wonder many people can't tell the salve from the snake oil.

Now, about those mumps: I had a full course of MMR as a child. When I moved to the UK, I had it again.

The MMR confers herd immunity – not everyone becomes immune, but the few unlucky people who don't (like me) are protected when most other people are immunised.

So when I moved to an area where many parents opted out of jabs, I fell ill. I was, after two courses of MMR, not immune to measles. I had follow-up jabs and am still not immune to rubella. If I become pregnant this could be a great concern.

At first, I was angry; and then sad. It costs £100,000 and more to defend libel suits. The sources we trust are being gagged because they can ill afford a case, even if they win. The costs are too high, the process too long, to risk it.

Nature abhors a vacuum, as does knowledge. Misinformation reigns.

These cases influence what the news tells us. If sources won't report facts established through scientific process, what is left to trust? It leaves a gaping hole that charlatans and manipulators will rush to fill.

• The Libel Reform Campaign's libel reform week culminates in the Big Libel Gig on Sunday 14 March 2010.”

Important FYI: The lawsuit against Mr. Singh was dismissed on March 12. See Amy Wallace blog for details.

Anyone reading this and lives in the U.K. should strongly consider signing this petition. If I lived there, I would sign it in a heartbeat.

Thanks to Brooke for writing about yet another important topic!

— The Curator

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