Times are getting very interesting in the land of libel laws in the UK. Over the last few months, there has been a growing campaign against current libel law, which allows companies and organisations to squash critical comment by the threat of a case against their critics. The costs involved are so enormous, and the outcomes so prejudiced against anyone writing critically, that many journalists are warned off.
The campaign was launched on 9th December and is supported by very many eminent journalists, performers, and critics, including Dr Ben Goldacre (of Bad Science fame) and Shazia Mirza (one of the funniest comedians in the UK). Even Jack Straw, the UK Justice Minister is now promoting libel law reform.
All of this was really a spinoff from the campaign to defend Dr Simon Singh, who had the temerity to suggest that chiropractors claiming to treat childhood colic were in need of some supporting evidence which they didn't have. Although rational people would have thought the case would revolve around assessing the available evidence for such treatment, in fact it turned on the meaning that a judge gave to the term bogus. Dr Singh was granted leave to appeal by Justice Laws and now we are expecting his case to be heard sometime early next year – the date of 22nd February has been mentioned.
In the arcane UK legal system, Dr Singh had to ask for leave to appeal against the ruling that there was a libel case to answer, and that is what Justice Laws granted him. Now there has been a very significant twist to the story in that the panel which will actually hear his appeal is to consist of the two most senior Appeal Court judges: The Lord Chief Justice and Master of the Rolls, Lord Neuberger, together with Lord Justice Sedley. They are to be joined by Dame Mary Arden, who is Chair of the Law Commission.
Of course, having the big-wigs running the show doesn't indicate how the appeal will go, but it does mean that very many people in the legal establishment and media will be waiting on the judgement, looking for precedent and a clarification of what journalists and others can take to be fair comment.
Coupled with the legal and even government moves to reform the libel laws, it may well be that the Appeals Court judges will want to prepare for the change by making some statement about how far critics can go in challenging claims made by companies and others, and what constitutes fair comment.
If the courts rule in favour of the kind of critical journalism shown by Dr Singh, Ben Goldacre and others, we can expect very many more searching investigations of the claims of alternative medicine. This could just be the first legal step towards a comprehensive quacklash, a systematic review of the unjustified claims by the entire alternative medicine industry.
If that happens, the British Chiropractic Association, which initiated the libel action against Dr Singh, will be searching for an adequate explanation to give its membership. Since starting the libel case, many of those member chiropractors have found themselves reported to the General Chiropractic Council to have their advertising and marketing claims investigated for compliance with their code of practice.
On the other hand, business interests always find allies in the legal system. Will they really expose a billion dollar industry to the expectation that it should actually justify and provide evidence for its medical claims? We can hope that they will, but we'll have to wait and see.