Thursday 15 April 2010

One giant leap for Simon, one small step for libel reform

The first thing I saw once I had got into the office and fought the standard 20 minute battle to get the Internet working was a Top Tweet by Jack of Kent: the BCA have finally listened to a good lawyer and caved in.

After that I found it extremely hard to move on to real work and concentrate dutifully while one of my bosses went through the intricacies of my paperwork related errors - I was too busy grinning like a lunatic, my insides swooping! Which may seem rather over-the-top considering I've only ever spoken to Simon for about 5 minutes - but it's very important news.

We can now all shout from the rooftops: the BCA happily promotes bogus treatments, for which there is not a jot of evidence (sorry, I couldn't resist that).

Actually, that isn't all that much to say, especially in an opinion piece. How many doctors, lawyers, politicians, teachers, social workers etc get routinely accused of outright murder and so on? And yet it's taken nearly 2 years, and £200,000 on Simon's part alone, just for us to get this far.

"My victory does not mean that our libel laws are okay," Simon tells us, "because I won despite the libel laws - we still have the most notoriously anti-free speech libel laws in the free world."

It's not over for him yet in any case, because he and the BCA still have to settle their costs. Even if the BCA pays him back every penny he's spent, he could have been doing far better things with the last 2 years of his life. It's been a sacrifice for the benefit of writers, science, and the general public who are so often misinformed because of vested interests abusing their power. But it won't do much good if other people have to go through the same thing.

Peter Wilmshurst, for instance, faces bankruptcy if he loses his case. Like Simon, he is a principled man, who will not bow to corporate pressure when he knows that what he is saying will for some patients be a matter of life and death. His case is also an example of the ridiculous libel tourism that results from our stupid and embarrassing laws. He's being sued by NMT Medical, an American company, who wouldn't get away with such a thing on home ground. And he's not backing down over what he says because it concerns medical research. He and some colleagues were investigating whether a new device could close a hole between the left and right atriums of the heart and thus reduce migraines. Initially, he was hopeful; but the clinical trials showed otherwise. Actually, it's murkier than that; the published research claims effectiveness, but then denied Wilmshurst access to the full dataset and he has concluded that what he has actually seen is mathematically impossible! I'm delighted to see that a charity has been set up to help him (oh, and you can visit the usual suspect for the best summary). And yet . . .

And yet what will suing Wilmshurst achieve? If they couldn't do it on home ground, why is it acceptable to do it here? Why not show him - and the rest of the world - the full dataset? What have they got to hide?

I know I'm annoyingly naive and idealistic. But it stuns me that any company considers its own reputation to be more important than what it actually produces, and the effects said produce will have. As Andy Lewis makes deliciously clear, there is no universal human rights declaration that all corporations have the inalienable right to a good reputation. Frankly, it's much better to just admit that you had a great idea, patented an amazing invention, or did an ambitious piece of research - and your hopes failed and the new treatment just isn't any better than the current favourite, but that's not for lack of effort or caring on your part. It's deflating, and in some market-driven societies could lose you funding - but that's still better than to put your patients (or customers, as they are so much more coldly and greedily regarded all too often) at risk. Otherwise, it isn't about treatment at all, and therefore shouldn't be allowed to claim it is.

All three major political parties have declared themselves in favour of libel reform. But we mustn't just sit back and assume everything will now be fine. We've won our first battle; let's not now lose the war. Please sign up to libel reform if you have not already done so, and tell your friends. As Dave Gorman said yesterday, if you've got a blog, if you ever take medicine, if you want to know more than you knew last year - this affects you. And it affects you if you don't live in the UK, because someone in Country A can sue someone else who lives in Country B, by coming to a third country - here. We need to end the libel tourism, and we need to end the ridiculously high costs which mean almost all writers will face bankruptcy if they don't fold immediately. And we need to make freedom of speech and openness in science the norm, not the exception as this has been.

Read more at Jack of Kent, Andy Lewis, the BBC, the Guardian, a Guardian blog post by Simon, umpteen quotes and links at Index on Censorship, and doubtless half a million more but that'll do fine for now!

No comments: