A blow has been struck in the name of British science journalism, with news that Simon Singh has won a court of appeal battle for the defence of fair comment in a libel action.
Singh had originally been accused of libel by the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) over an opinion piece where he said there was a lack of evidence for claims that chiropractors made on treating childhood conditions like colic and asthma.
It was alleged that Singh had accused the BCA of knowing they were supporting bogus treatments and being consciously dishonest.
It was then in the High Court where infamous high court judge Mr Justice Eady said that Singh comments were fact, not opinion, and he couldn’t use the fair comment defence.
But a a new judge ruled that Eady was wrong with his opinion, and allowed Singh’s appeal.
In British law, the difference between somebody stating a fact and an opinion is huge, as defendants would have to justify a statement of fact which would often mean an huge amount of research and scientific evidence.
Defending a statement of opinion, if it is honestly held, is far easier and cheaper. Because Eady believed that Singh was trying to state a fact, he would have had to prove it which would have been extremely costly for him.
The appeal means that he can rely on the fair comment law, but Singh stated that the action had cost £200,000.
If the appeal stood, it would have meant that science journalists would have needed a high standard of proof to defend against libel cases, and supports the view that scientific arguments should be settled with debate rather than the courts.
Companies will now have to think twice before getting the law onto scientists who want to express honestly held opinions about drugs and therapies.