Chiropractic: A brave scientist and an epic court battle: How Britain's libel laws are threatening free speech
With his round, John Lennon-style specs and nerdish good looks, physicist Simon Singh is an unlikely hero. As one of the country's most acclaimed science writers, he has spent much of his 45 years cloistered in his Home Counties study penning Number One bestsellers on mathematical conundrums, code-breaking and the Big Bang theory. Turning his hand to alternative medicine, last year he published a book called Trick Or Treatment? that included a chapter on the history of chiropractic therapy (the manipulation of the spine to realign the back), which was invented by grocer and spiritual healer Daniel David Palmer in 1890s America.
Inspired by the 'miraculous' recovery of a deaf man whom he treated by manipulating or 'racking' his back, Palmer said that 95 per cent of all diseases are caused by trapped vertebrae. Suddenly, the therapy (which takes its name from the Greek word for hand) became a near-religion, with Palmer boasting he was a successor to Christ and Mohammed. He even practised vigorous 'racking' on his own children, which led to him beingrrested and jailed for cruelty. Palmer's ideas caught on and, in 1925, the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) was set up and several clinics opened specialising in the treatment. Chiropractors were able, it seemed, to cure a myriad of ailments and began to broaden their therapies. Recently, the association has said that even children suffering from colic, eating problems, ear infections and asthma can be helped.
However, many in the traditional medical profession view the therapy with deep suspicion. Though the General Medical Council and the Royal College of General Practitioners advocate its use - especially for back pain - some scientists say there is no evidence that chiropractic spinal manipulation is better than other forms of back massage. This has led to widespread debate in the medical world, with some doctors refusing to refer patients to chiropractors, claiming the treatment does not work and can even cause harm.
In his book, Dr Singh questioned whether chiropractors could really achieve the results they claim. Later, in a column in the Guardian newspaper, he went further, saying the therapies for children were 'bogus'. Unsurprisingly, he came under an avalanche of criticism and the BCA demanded an apology and a retraction. When it received neither from Dr Singh, it decided to sue him personally for libel.
Dr Singh's battle serves as a frightening example of what happens when a ruthless body tries to crush anyone who questions its power or expertise. The ensuing row has also shone a light on English libel law, raising the question of whether it acts as a barrier to critical comment and public debate.
On Singh's side are some of the country's most illustrious and influential luminaries of science, the legal profession and showbusiness. They include former Government chief scientist Sir David King, the geneticist Steve Jones, biologist Richard Dawkins, leading QC Baroness Kennedy, the actors Stephen Fry and Ricky Gervais, and comedian Harry Hill (a former doctor).
Pitted against them is the BCA, which won the preliminary round with a judgment last month in the Royal Courts of Justice by Mr Justice Eady, the country's most senior libel judge, who is responsible for a series of controversial rulings. Justice Eady's critics accuse him of creating, almost single-handedly, a privacy law in Britain as a result of his interpretations of the 1998 Human Rights Act, in which he invariably seems to give more weight to privacy than to freedom of expression.
Most notably, Justice Eady ruled in a case involving Formula One boss Max Mosley that it was wrong for the News of the World to expose his liking for sadomasochistic orgies with paid 'professional dominatrices', saying: 'I accept that such behaviour is viewed by some people with distaste and moral disapproval, but in the light of modern rights-based jurisprudence that does not provide any justification for the intrusion on the personal privacy of the claimant.'
In another high-profile case, he stopped a cuckolded husband selling his story to the Press about a sporting celebrity who had seduced the husband's wife. Adulterers, said the judge, deserve privacy like anyone else. Via a succession of such rulings, the judge has built up a formidable body of case law upon which public figures can rely when they wish to gag newspapers or publishers. As a result, an increasing number of foreigners have succeeded in using the English courts to launch defamation cases, even if they - or their claims - have little to do with this country. Indeed, so serious has this problem become that the U.S. Congress - worried about the freedom of expression of Americans - is passing legislation to provide its citizens with immunity from British libel courts.
No doubt Simon Singh bore all this in mind when the libel case against him started last month. But as he explained this week: 'The hearing was supposed to last a day and a half. The idea was to have a preliminary ruling on the "meaning" of my article, so that I would know exactly what I would have to defend at the subsequent full trial. 'However, Mr Justice Eady suddenly stopped everything and said he had made up his mind already. It was all over in a morning. 'First, he decided that my article on the Guardian's comment pages was fact and not comment. 'Second, he said that it contained "the plainest allegation of dishonesty...and accused them (the BCA) of thoroughly disreputable conduct". 'In other words, according to his ruling, my article said the BCA was deliberately dishonest in promoting fake treatments as a matter of fact. 'This is unfortunate. Although I feel that chiropractors are deluded and reckless, I was not suggesting that they are dishonest.'
Of course, Singh and his supporters (who believe that free speech - the very cornerstone of British democracy - is at stake) are furious. His position is made worse by the fact that, under English law, anyone accused of libel is deemed guilty until proven innocent, unlike the defendant in a criminal case, where the burden of proof is the other way round. This means that he must prove the accuracy of his comments, as opposed to the chiropractic association proving that he is wrong.
As he says: 'It falls to the unfortunate defendant to prove before the court, often at considerable expense, that their statement was accurate. Also, fighting a defamation action in a London court costs many, many times the average for the rest of Europe. 'This has the effect of turning the legal system into a high-stakes poker game in which having good cards is not enough.'
Dr Singh is applying to the Court of Appeal in the hope that Mr Justice Eady's judgment can be challenged. If he loses that application, he plans to take the case to the European Court of Human Rights, claiming under Article 10 that his own freedom of expression has been infringed.
Meanwhile, 10,000 people have signed a petition backing him. Jonathan Heawood, director of English PEN, a charity promoting literature and human rights, says: 'You know there's something badly wrong with the libel law when a serious scientific writer is dragged through the courts for something he didn't even mean to say.' He explains that Simon Singh's only mistake was not to define clearly what he meant by bogus. 'He did not distinguish between " ineffective" and "fraudulent" treatments, both of which might equally be termed "bogus". The real culprit here is the rich English language and the arcane law of libel.'
The former Government scientist Sir David King adds: 'It is ridiculous that a legal and outdated definition of a word has been used to hinder and discourage scientific debate. We must be able to fairly and reasonably challenge ideas without the fear of legal intimidation. This sort of thing only brings the law into disrepute.'
Professor Richard Dawkins, the eminent biologist and controversial atheist author of The God Delusion, says: 'The English libel laws are ridiculed as an international charter for litigious mountebanks, and the effects are especially pernicious where science is concerned.'
Moreover, Singh is not alone in holding sceptical views about the work done by chiropractors. A few weeks ago, the Advertising Standards Authority upheld a complaint against a chiropractor who claimed he could treat children suffering from colic and learning difficulties.
Singh's backers have also lodged a formal complaint against each chiropractor working in Britain whom they perceive to be in breach of the advertising code over the treatment of children. Five hundred complaints have been sent to the General Chiropractic Council in the past few weeks. And, in a clear sign that the industry is worried, it emerged this week that another professional body representing chiropractors - the McTimoney Chiropractic Association (MCA) - has emailed its members saying they must beware of calling themselves 'doctors' if they are not properly qualified. The email adds: 'Remove all the MCA patient information leaflets, or any leaflets of your own, that state you treat whiplash, colic or other childhood problems at your clinic. DO NOT USE until further notice.'
In what is clearly a response to the Singh case, members of the MCA have also been ordered to close down their websites to protect themselves from a 'witch-hunt'. Even so, the Mail has discovered that some chiropractors are still continuing to advertise treatments for children. For example, a quick search on Google reveals the website of a busy clinic in the South of England proclaiming: 'A spinal check-up could be one of the most important of your child's life. With a healthy spinal column, a child's body can better deal with sore throats, ear infections, stomachaches, fevers and the hundred-andone other problems that often make up young life.'
As for the BCA, it is to continue the libel case against Singh. It has declared: 'In the course of this litigation, the BCA has disclosed to the courts a plethora of medical evidence showing that the treatments work and that the risk associated with the treatments is minimal, if, indeed, there is any risk at all. 'Dr Singh stated that the BCA promotes treatments that are positively dangerous. He cannot justify his stance and has not made any attempt to do so. Therefore, an apology continues to be sought, along with damages and costs.'
So what of the future for Dr Singh? He has already spent £100,000 of his own money to defend himself in the ill-fated High Court hearing that lasted just three hours. If he is not allowed to appeal, damages again him will be announced and could run into thousands of pounds more. No wonder he observes bitterly: 'There is something fundamentally wrong with libel laws that have such a chilling effect on journalists, whether they write about science or anything else. 'Even large publishers are intimidated by the huge expense of fighting a libel battle. Articles that should be defended are dropped, and articles that should be written are shelved before they are even published because of potential defamation action.'
Singh, who lives in Richmond upon Thames, Surrey, with his journalist wife, says: 'If I lose my case, it will only further discourage other journalists - or anyone else - from criticising individuals and organisations in relation to matters of public interest.'
He is not an easy opponent. He has a brilliant mind, has won an MBE for his services to science and is receiving determined support from a growing phalanx of experts, politicians, scientists, lawyers and celebrities. In this contest - which has gone well beyond the world of Daniel David Palmer's original 'racking' cure in 1895 - he is unlikely to go away quietly. As he says: 'I still believe my article was reasonable, fair and important in terms of informing parents about the lack of evidence relating to chiropractic treatment for some childhood conditions. I am determined to continue.'
Simon Singh may be a surprise figurehead for such an epic battle, but he won't stop until he has guaranteed that the principle of free speech - which is something about which judges such as Justice Eady seem remarkably nonchalant - remains at the very heart of our British way of life.
Canterbury is sufficiently gay, council inspectors rule
One of Britain's most historic cities, Canterbury, has been told it is sufficiently gay – after a complaint sparked a two-month investigation costing thousands of pounds.
A government watchdog decided that Canterbury in Kent does enough to promote homosexual culture, rejecting a complaint by local activists. The Local Government Ombudsman – who asked for the city's council to provide evidence of how it supported the gay community – said it was satisfied the pink pound was being catered for.
As part of the investigation, the council had to prove its inclusiveness by giving details of "touring plays and musicals, for example, which would be of interest to the LGBT community". And it had to show that it had "put forward suggestions for small events that it might help fund, as well as proposals for other events such as exhibitions".
Rob Davies, spokesman for the council, said: "Obviously we're delighted with the outcome of the investigation. "We feel we do a great deal for the gay community in Canterbury and we have always tried to support various gay events and promotions." "But at the same time it is not the duty of any council to set up a gay bar – that's not what councils do."
The two-month investigation began at the end of April after a letter was sent from two representatives of Pride in Canterbury. Chairman Andrew Brettell lodged a formal complaint with the Local Government Ombudsman claiming his initial letter to the council in November fell on deaf ears. Mr Brettell, in his 60s, said last month: "We do not believe the council want a thriving LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) community in our city. The impression I get is that the council just doesn't want to know.
"I get the feeling it is precious because Canterbury has a cathedral and history. I think they think the gay community will turn it into Sodom and Gomorrah."
Black Activists Praise Supreme Court's Affirmative Action Decision
Justices' Ruling Throws Sotomayor Nomination into Serious Question
With the U.S. Supreme Court dealing a stinging blow to race-based employment practices, members of the Project 21 black leadership network are praising the Ricci v. DeStefano decision as a step toward removing the racial trappings of a by-gone era and putting all Americans on equal footing.
"It was clear to this Court that barring people from promotion because of the color of their skin is wrong. The only downside is that four justices still cling to an outmoded and discriminatory line of thought," said Project 21 chairman Mychal Massie. "True equality allows people to rise and fall on their merits. That's what this decision protects. How can one oppose such fairness?"
In a 5-4 decision, the Court reversed the lower court ruling, barring the use of race as the sole factor in promotions. In his majority opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote, "Fear of litigation alone cannot justify the City's reliance on race to the detriment of individuals who passed the examinations and qualified for promotions."
The decision also casts serious doubt on the Supreme Court nomination of Sonia Sotomayor. She was a member of the appeals court panel that issued the one-paragraph opinion overturned today. Now, she must explain to senators how she could be so much at odds with her potential future colleagues.
"Justice is supposed to be blind, but the opinion she joined in the Ricci case - now overturned by the Supreme Court - shows Sonia Sotomayor believes justice should be based on ethnicity," added Project 21's Massie. "Her ruling in Ricci is an unambiguous example of her placing her feelings and personal prejudices above what the law dictates or allows."
The Ricci case revolves around a 2003 promotions exam given to firefighters in New Haven, Connecticut. After the tests were scored, only two Hispanics and no blacks scored high enough to qualify for promotion. After black and Hispanic activists pushed to have the test results thrown out, the city's Civil Service Commission effectively did so by deadlocking 2-2 on the decision to certify the exam.
After the results of the exam were set aside by the city, 20 New Haven firefighters - one Hispanic and 19 white - sued based on the claim of reverse discrimination. The city was granted summary judgment at the district court level, and a panel of judges that included current U.S. Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor sided with the lower court in a eight-sentence opinion that called the previous opinion allowing the city to throw out the test scores based on race "thorough, thoughtful and well-reasoned."
In a concurring opinion, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote of the question of empathy for those passed over: "But 'sympathy' is not what petitioners have a right to demand. What they have a right to demand is evenhanded enforcement of the law... And that is what, until today's decision, has been denied them."
Women are their own harshest critcs
Forget the "sisterhood"
In a few weeks, I will be poolside with a lot of women I have never met. In other words, I don’t yet know what the level of competition will be: am I going to be in the average category, or will I compare really badly with the other assembled bikini bodies? Do I have to give up all carbs, as of now? Or just upgrade the bikini? There will be men on this holiday too, yes. Loads of them. But have I thought about their reaction to me in swimwear, once? As if.
Last week, we learnt (or had confirmed) that men are really quite uncritical when it comes to women’s bodies. According to tests carried out on a bunch of lusty Ozzie students, 40in hips and short legs are no obstacle to attraction. The majority of those surveyed actively preferred the 5ft 4in, size 14 Miss Averages to the Playboy centrefolds and top models. Yay! Put out the bunting! What a result for those of us who thought we had to be Lara Croft to get a look-in. But the relief was short-lived. Within minutes, we’d all forgotten about the scientifically proven evidence and were back to worrying about whether our bums look big and our thighs dimply.
The problem is twofold. In the first place, we don’t really care what men think because we don’t believe them. (Look at Brad: he said he liked the girl next door, albeit Hollywood-style, and then he went off with Lara Croft.) And, even if we did believe them, we are looking for affirmation from another, hypercritical source: women.
The fact is, women have their own separate standard for looks. We always have had. We think girls are beautiful whom men think are weird. We think clothes are fabulous that men find hilarious. We know that smudgy eyes and Balmain jackets and snakeskin heels are hot, even if men insist they prefer us in bias-cut dresses with shiny wavy hair and a pair of flip-flops. We have our own rigid definitions of sexy — Kate Moss is sexy, and if any man dares to say: “But what about the scrawny knees?” we just assume he’s insensitive to what’s what. We’ll allow Nigella, but not Sarah Beeny. We insist on Jane Birkin and Tilda Swinton. When our menfolk occasionally mutter (as they do): “I think I’d rather have Myleene in the M&S ad, given the choice,” we refuse to take them seriously. Even when it comes to mutilating our bodies to give them Barbie doll proportions, it’s hardly ever men’s preferences driving the decision. (Remember the stories of Peter Andre pleading with Jordan to lay off the operations.)
It is genuinely comforting to know that there’s one sex out there who wants us to be ourselves and not stress about perfection. It’s just a pity it’s not the one that really matters.
Political correctness is most pervasive in universities and colleges but I rarely report the incidents concerned here as I have a separate blog for educational matters.
American "liberals" often deny being Leftists and say that they are very different from the Communist rulers of other countries. The only real difference, however, is how much power they have. In America, their power is limited by democracy. To see what they WOULD be like with more power, look at where they ARE already very powerful: in America's educational system -- particularly in the universities and colleges. They show there the same respect for free-speech and political diversity that Stalin did: None. So look to the colleges to see what the whole country would be like if "liberals" had their way. It would be a dictatorship.
For more postings from me, see TONGUE-TIED, GREENIE WATCH, EDUCATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL, FOOD & HEALTH SKEPTIC, GUN WATCH, SOCIALIZED MEDICINE, AUSTRALIAN POLITICS, DISSECTING LEFTISM, IMMIGRATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL and EYE ON BRITAIN. My Home Pages are here or here or here. Email me (John Ray) here. For readers in China or for times when blogger.com is playing up, there is a mirror of this site here.