A warning to the incautious

By , 18 September 2009 6:00 pm

I don’t understand this blogging business; post something innocuous and you get lots of responses, say something outrageous and there is only silence. I thought for instance last week I would have lots of responses; instead Catherine took another position in her post (she made some fair points even if I don’t agree with them all) and we got not a single response. Oh well.

Anyway, some people might lament the fact that I am not hard-hitting enough, that I do not thrash about and lash the targets of the age with barbed witticisms and withering critiques. (Memo to self: must read Richard Dawkins’s new book – that should give me something to be venomous about.) There are several reasons why this is not a more acid blog and my belief in grace and forgiveness is only one of them.

One reason is something that has always lurked at the back of my mind but which has surfaced rather spectacularly in the UK; namely our extraordinary libel laws. I picked up a fascinating and disturbing case in a recent perusal of the New York Times website. The background is that a British science journalist of some repute, Simon Singh, wrote an article in The Guardian in which he said there was no evidence for some of the claims that the British Chiropractic Association makes about the health benefits of visiting a chiropractor. He specifically wrote, “The British Chiropractic Association claims that their members can help treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying, even though there is not a jot of evidence. This organisation is the respectable face of the chiropractic profession and yet it happily promotes bogus treatments.” That penultimate and incautious word bogus damned him and he is now being sued for libel by the BCA. He is in a desperate no-win situation. In order to successfully defend himself, he will have to come up with at least £25,000 and spend a couple of years battling the BCA; if he loses he will be hammered for the best part of quarter of a million.

The problem is that British libel laws are very biased. It is apparently very easy to bring a libel case against someone and astonishingly hard and costly to defend having made an allegedly libellous statement. The New York Times says that the average cost of defending a libel case in England and Wales is 140 times greater than it is in most of the rest of Europe. Not only that but English law favours the person who believes he or she says she has been defamed.

Now I know almost nothing about chiropractors. Until I did a bit of reading up on the subject I was not aware that there was something of a philosophy behind it and I am not qualified to say whether Singh is right or wrong. (Mind you, I have my suspicions.) The New York Times‘s point of view was that the UK was definitely not a place for discussion of difficult scientific issues and I have to concur. What is surely legitimate discussion is being suppressed by the fear of punitive litigation.

If pushed to give a Christian take on this, I think I would want to say three things. The first is that, as those who are dedicated to the truth, we must have some sort of commitment to supporting open discussion even if the outcome can sometimes be abusive and hateful. ‘You will know the truth and the truth will set you free’ (John 8:32). Surely, one of the differences between Christian orthodoxy and fundamentalism is that orthodoxy is prepared to risk being criticised. That somewhat aberrant Puritan, Milton wrote in protest against censorship. (Mind you I wonder whether he would have persisted in his views had he seen what’s on the Internet.) If this sort of legal situation persists we will have a culture of nothing but blandness and empty words. Perhaps this is the root of the legendary English politeness: not goodness of heart but the fear of being sued!

The second is that in the sovereignty of God (and the stupidity of men) such actions can actually be astonishingly self-defeating. Courtesy of this action I, and I’m sure many others, have gone from being neutrally ignorant on chiropractors to being better informed and distinctly more negative.

The third is the comforting thought that we know that the truth will ultimately triumph. Perhaps in this life but certainly in the next, the lie will perish. A verdict will be given that is more definitive (and certainly more unarguable) than given by any judge and jury. And if necessary we can wait until then.

So if you do turn to this blog and find a fiery condemnation of some movement or individual, can probably guess that I have left the UK’s shores and am living abroad. In the meantime I will watch out for words like ‘bogus’.

Have a good week.

3 Responses to “A warning to the incautious”

  1. Stephanie says:

    I just have to say that it's not just in the UK that you have to worry about being sued; I've noticed that people like to sue each other quite a bit in the States too. Though the cases I've heard about tend to be more about "hate speech" than "libel" (or is it the same thing?).
    Thankfully I haven't noticed much of that here in France – in fact, people tend to voice negative opinions (some of which could probably be considered potentially libellous in the UK) very loudly. Which, I will admit, can be very annoying at times. But at least people feel freer to express their opinions, at least on most things.
    Hopefully that made sense; brain's a tad fried right now.

  2. Boaz says:

    The thing that I have seen is that the defendant is presumed guilty under British libel law, rather than innocent, and there appear to be fewer defenses. For instance, back before the Revolution, there was a case in (I think) Massachusetts charging someone with libel, and the main defense was that the statements were true. The prosecutor objected to that defense, saying that 'something may be a libel even if it is true', and the defense attorney countered by saying that being untruthful was part of the definition. End result: judge sided with the prosecution, but the jury sided with the defense.

    Differing standards are also causing a phenomenon called libel tourism. The first example that springs to mind is again, unfortunately, British, where a Muslim purchased a copy or copies of a book in the U.S.A., then took them back to the U.K., and a Saudi(?) sheik sued for libel regarding documented accusations that he funded terrorists. (I'm going off of memory here, and so I may have minor mistakes.) I know that the suit was fought on grounds (among others) of lack of jurisdiction, but the court ruled that it was a libel, and ordered the author to pay a large fine. (The author had not been to the U.K. at all, nor has gone since then IIRC, and has not paid the fine, so could conceivably be arrested.)

    For another fun one, look at Canada's hate-speech provisions for their Human Rights Commissions. Ezra Levant and Mark Steyn have quite a bit on them from the perspective of those sued for hate speech and fighting back. As they have noted, and as Singh has found out, the process is part of the punishment.

  3. Anita says:

    (I'm not in the UK, so I can say this :) ): taking someone to court over the word "bogus" is completely insane.

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