Thursday 15 April 2010

Westminster Skeptics in the Pub: a libel law reform rally!

Having been to one terrific Skeptics in the Pub, I immediately decided I had to attend another - a celebration of Simon winning his appeal, and a rally for where the libel reform movement needs to go next.

I would have gone over the entire meeting as well as I could remember it, but that actually wasn't as well as last time - and in any case Noodlemaz has just done me out of a blog by an incredibly thorough and entertaining summary here! So you'll just have to have one of my rambling novels as a substitute!

This time, the train journey there went smoothly. I arrived at Westminster tube station shortly before five, and just for once had remembered a map, so decided to do a bit of touristy wandering. First I ambled up to Hungerford Bridge. I can never see or hear that name without getting a serious attack of the giggles. This is entirely Mark Thomas's fault: it is the site of two of his hilarious demonstrations in his wonderful investigation of the SOCPA Act. (I seriously, seriously recommend listening to that show.) "WHY DO YOU WANT TO DEMONSTRATE ON HUNGERFORD BRIDGE?!" "I want to abolish footbridges." "WHY?" "I want to encourage swimming." Not to mention, "I'm going to stand on the bridge at midnight and I'm going to hand out one leaflet. One leaflet counts as a demonstration." "Indeed it does. Indeed it does! But don't you see, I'm going to be generating more paperwork than you're going to be handing out! Were you aware of that?!" "Yeah, yeah, I was . . ." And later: "Ah, so you're back on Hungerford Bridge again!" So, yes, I hope I didn't giggle too conspicuously while wandering to the middle of Hungerford Bridge and back again.

So then I drifted back Big Benwards and ended up in Parliament Square. I was in the no-demonstrations-without-police-permission zone. I wondered if I could be arrested for wearing a Keep Libel Laws Out of Science T-shirt and was rather disappointed I'd decided not to (as I wore it for Jourdemayne's talk). Brian Haw was there, in the middle, with several tents and placards. The man himself was standing at a sort of table reading the paper. I had to walk most of the way round before I could actually get to the middle bit where he was. I felt a bit of an idiot, but I went up and said to him, "Thank you for doing this." He nodded and smiled but said nothing, and I could think of nothing further, so I stood around moronically looking at his placards and news columns. I do thank him for doing this. Right in the heart of our country's capital, he is a pin poised over our government's balloon, a breath of fresh air reaching the open wound of our country's conscience. I wouldn't argue with anyone who said you have to be a bit of a nutcase to go and live there for so many years as a protest, but I'm glad someone did. Not to mention glad that that ridiculous SOCPA law failed in its primary purpose, namely to get rid of him. Sorry, but hushing up protests won't make us forget we entered an illegal war.

I wished there was something I could contribute to his efforts somehow, but didn't see anything obvious. Later I saw the flag over Buckingham Palace appeared to be flying at half mast. What was the matter? asked a snarky little voice in my brain. Was homeopathy being given a hard time?

Fast forward the next hour or so while I said around in the pub waiting for someone I would recognise to arrive! In fact someone did look familiar and it later turned out he was James who runs the Pod Delusion. As people arrived there was suddenly a feel of a Galaxy Zoo get-together: the surreal feeling of meeting people you've already known and formed definite impressions of over the Internet - and, as both parties relax and clamber over the surprises, a wonderful sense of being amongst one's own species. I wasn't among aggressive fanatics, desperate to narrow the world down to a cold set of proven/disproven data. I was among cheerful, passionate, amiable people, full of smiles and laughter (not least when the rumour began to trickle round that Dr Evan Harris's parents "had come to hear him speak"), who bought drinks on a very random basis (I got one from someone I barely exchanged a word with and bought one for another similar). We want the truth and to search for it. We're on a mission. So, M J Robbins, Carmenego, Zeno, Maria, Jon Treadway, Richard Wilson, Dave Gorman, and many more - it was lovely to meet you. (I'm still waiting to meet Simon Perry, also known as Sir Simon, and perhaps Dr Ben Goldacre!) Crispian and Jourdemayne, it was great to catch up. And a special lovely-to-meet-you must go to David Allen Green, better known as Jack of Kent. Besides writing a wonderful blog that has taught me a great deal, David organises Westminster Skeptics in the Pub, was working ridiculously hard to make every tiny thing a success . . . but still found time, among so many other things, to introduce me to Simon!

Who I hadn't had a clue had actually read any of this blog, but shook my hand and thanked me for spreading the word. I'm sure some people would like to think of him as twisted, stubborn and evil, but he was the most gentle and charming of people, and an excellent listener. I thanked him for what he's doing for science, writers, and the general population, and he smiled vaguely and said, "I didn't have much choice." He was very keen on updating us on the baby's progress! I asked him where I should buy his books in order to give him the maximum profit, as I had got the impression that it varies, but Simon just shrugged and said wherever. Jack/David told me later that my face when Simon came up to me was worth the entire evening, so I hope nobody had a camera handy just then!

And the bit we were all waiting for: speeches! speeches!

There were so many people I could barely see the panel. Jourdemayne chaired. It was one of those large pubs with a lower area with a lot of round tables, and a few steps up to a restaurant area. The speeches were made at the border between the two, and most of the speakers were up in the restaurant area waiting their turn. The bar staff, meanwhile, were quietly and really rather heroically managing to squeeze between us to tidy up.

Dave Gorman began, with a hilarity a sentence. He explained how the BCA have pretty much done the worst thing possible for the chiropractors they purport to be helping. They've tried to have their cake and eat it. They could have taken the scientific route: to argue that actually Simon is wrong, and there is distinctly more than a jot of scientific evidence. Or they could have taken the woo route: they don't care about the science, this is something beyond that. Instead, they tried to take the middle route. But their own plethora of evidence did demonstrate that whatever the evidence was, it was distinctly less than a jot (howls of laughter). What did they want Simon to say? "All right, I'm really sorry I called you liars - actually, you're just stupid"?

In any case, they operated a bully's policy: they chose to sue Simon rather than the Guardian, because Simon would have fewer resources to fight with and therefore be likelier to back down. That he did not makes him a hero. And meanwhile, suddenly their chiropractors have been subjected to a great deal of scrutiny, and are no longer getting away with happily promoting bogus treatments, because the bogusness is being pointed out far and wide. Even if the BCA win the case, the very people they're supposed to be helping are now at a huge disadvantage.

Meanwhile, David was silently heading from one speaker to another - it turned out that the prospective Labour speaker, Bridget Prentice, hadn't been able to make it and Lord Bach, who had to leave in 10 minutes, had taken her place. So it was necessary to swap round all the talks right on the spot. The political speeches were heartening, but later left a vague sense of flatness (apart from Dr Evan Harris, of course). Lord Bach made promises. Joanne Cash pointed out that Labour hadn't done much over the last 12 years. Evan Harris pointed out that neither Labour nor Conservative actually made any specific promises, and urged us to all ask our local candidates for specifics. (Which reminds me, have a look at, which shows you what's said but not by who. Your vote based on that might surprise you. I picked the ones that not only sounded fairest, but which actually gave specifics. That turned out to be 60% Green and 40% LibDem, if you're interested.)

Actually, I'm being a little unfair. All the speeches were very good. Joanne Cash described David as "a force for good - even though he's not going to be voting Conservative", to which he replied, "A force for good, that's so going on my blog tomorrow!" She is actually a libel lawyer and has the experience to see what needs changing - and has come to the conclusion: a lot. Evan Harris asked why the Labour manifesto talks about "defendants". To say the least this says nothing of the self-censorship that so many writers have to undergo to stay on the safe side.

Our beloved Simon was obviously very happy at the result of his appeal, but he and David reiterated that this is far from the end. The appeal does nothing about the state of the law as it is. Libel costs in the UK are still 140 times higher than the European average. Libel tourism is still rife. Reputable publications (such as Cambridge University Press, as we later heard) will promptly stifle anything that could cause them trouble. And as it stands at the moment, it's a field in which only the wealthy can play. (Another huge joke of Dave Gorman's was about two magicians having an argument over the right way to do a magic trick, and one of them claimed victory and walked away on the grounds that he drove a posher car. By that argument the fanciest car in the world - a James Bond model perhaps - gives its owner the right to rule the world.)

There was a poignant little memory, I think told by David, about the original preliminary hearing in which Judge Eady described Simon's article as "the plainest allegation of dishonesty". The skeptics were stunned. "Simon made his excuses and went home," said David (or whoever it was), a chapter in a few words. And meanwhile the rest of them sat down in the pub for a long time and discussed what to do about it. Out of this came many tweets, blogposts, articles, Internet groups . . . and out of that came a grassroots campaign which is now supported by all three main parties. Now that is real progress! Margaret Mead might have been famously wrong about sex and South Sea Islanders, but I am nearly sure she was right when she wrote: "Never doubt that a small, thoughtful group of people can change the world - it's the only thing that ever does."

Anyway, for more details, check out Noodlemaz and also James Streetley.

There were a few more amusing moments. A questioner was telling a very long story until he had to finally be asked: "Do you have a question?" Another question was about Judge Eady, and David stood up and said loudly: "I have never criticised Judge Eady!" As he has said before, it is useless to scapegoat: it is the law that needs changing. Oh, and we mustn't forget that just when the cost of Simon's trial so far was mentioned to a relatively quiet room, one of the bar staff broke several glasses with a resounding crash - followed by whoops and cheers! Now, we mustn't confuse correlation with causation, but that was still pretty fantastic.

It was a fascinating and joyful evening - I noticed that Simon was surrounded by well-wishers a very long time after he'd announced he was off - and one result of going was that I have been sent a 1023 T-shirt by the terrific Carmenego (thank you very much!). I've been widely urged to start a Wales Skeptics in the Pub, and will write about that another time. Guess what, again special thanks go to Crispian for making it possible for me to come along. I wouldn't have been able to go to either of these great events had it not been for him. The only downside was that my purse was stolen at Cardiff Central on the way home. It contained all my cards, my tickets, driving license, National Insurance, clubcards, silly little things like get-so-many-coffees-stamped-get-another-free, a cheque, car keys, house keys and about £60 in cash that I'd withdrawn just in case. I don't know how anyone got hold of it. All I know is, I sat on a bench with it, my bag and a cup of tea, and I put it into my bag. But then, when I got onto the train, it was gone. The guard at Bridgend (the next station) rang the folks on Cardiff Central but they hadn't seen it. He then directed me to the local police station, who sent me straight back to Bridgend saying they couldn't take the report and this was a matter for the British Transport Police. I might add that it was boiling hot and I was still carrying my bag and coat and had a blister larger than a fifty pence piece. So after a lot of depressing phone calls, I had to wait another hour for the next train, and didn't get home until seven though I'd left before ten o'clock. Still, the guard on Bridgend was very generous, letting me use the station telephone, bits of paper and so on - and writing me a special note to show the train guards all the way home.

Perhaps a randomised blind trial with a control group could be set up to see if my attendance at Skeptics in the Pub really does have the effect of attracting disaster. Based on a sample of two, the answer is a definite yes. But then I am known for clumsiness and losing things. Anyway, let's put it this way. Bit by bit I can replace the contents of my purse. But if I hadn't gone to those two events, no amount of phoning police stations and banks and working for a salary could get me all those friends, knowledge, and enjoyment - or address any of society's problems. So it's still got to be worth doing!


Jack of Kent said...

Hi Alice

It was a very real pleasure to meet you too, and I am so glad you enjoyed the evening.

I am so sorry that you lost your purse; I certainly would not be so philosophical if it was my wallet :-)

Nonetheless, this is a great blogpost. And thanks for noticing the organisational hard work which goes into these events. However, I do have Carmenego, Jourdemayne, Lucifee (all excellent bloggers as well) and others to help me!

Anonymous said...

I did meet and hear Dr. Ben Goldacre about 10 days ago. He was great fun and poked at the BCA...

Anonymous said...

Thank you very much for the linkage!
Also sorry you lost your purse, that really sucks.

Incidentally, I bloody love Hungerford Bridge.


Crispian Jago said...

Hi Alice, why not come to another event to disprove the disaster correlation.

You're always welcome

Alice said...

I'd love to, Crispian, very many thanks for everything :)

It was over 24 hours before I could feel remotely possible about my purse!

But it was a very worthwhile journey all the same. And haven't we got great news today!

Alice said...

Oh, and noodlemaz, that is a seriously terrific picture! :)

Jourdemayne said...

Fantastic to see you again Alice. So sorry to hear about your purse. I agree with Crispian - you should attend as many SitPs as poss. and see what the correlates for disaster are. I bet you'll be fine :-)