Pages

Thursday, 28 August 2008

McLibel

The McLibel case is the finest, most beautiful example of a Crap Libel Case. It is a true work of art, to be savoured by all of us over time.

It is the Crap Libel Case against which all others are measured.

In particular, there are three really, really stupid decisions by McDonalds in this case. These decisions are so staggeringly misconceived that they should be treasured by anyone interested in the dysfunctions of human nature. Only very special decision-makers can make decisions this bad.

The initial facts are simple. A group of activists are handing out leaflets attacking McDonalds. The attacks are in respect of a number of subjects. A copy of the leaflet is here.

McDoanlds then threaten to sue a number of the activists. All but two apologise. However, Helen Steel and David Morris do not.

We come to the first silly decision: the initial decision to sue.

There was nothing to be gained by suing but adverse publicity. It was foreseeable that the defendants would seek to justify their claims wherever possible. If McDonalds won any of these points, no one would care; but if they lost any one of them, it would be a PR calamity.

It was also foreseeable that the case would be seen as "David vs Goliath" with McDonalds being heavy handed. At a stroke, the defendant supersized an otherwise trivial matter.

As it was, both of these predictable points were borne out in practice. The defendants took full advantage of the wide-ranging nature of the allegations. Dozens of witnesses were called, dozens of papers were cited, and - deliciously - many McDonalds executives were cross-examined. And some of the allegations were upheld. Furthermore, the "McLibel Two" became celebrities: a cause for enlightened sorts to support.

As the judge himself said:

"...the case received publicity, some of which was unfavourable to McDonalds who were portrayed in some quarters as bullies who were trying to stifle freedom of speech".

(The judge's own 45 page summary of the judgment is here. Read, enjoy.)

The next two stupid decisions came in response to this unfolding PR disaster.

First, McDonalds decided not to just drop the case. The executives involved wanted to have something to show for bringing the claim. They wanted to somehow save face. So McDonalds insisted on certain conditions before the case would be dropped. The McLibel Two would have to stop public criticism of McDonalds, though they could criticise McDonalds privately to their friends.

Wonderfully, the McLibel Two responded by saying that in return McDonalds would have to cease advertising their products, though they could continue recommending their products privately to their friends.

McDonalds should have just dropped the case and walked away. It would have taken courage by the relevant executives to do this. But they couldn't. Such a sensible course of action simply "did not compute".

And then there is the third decision, a decision of incredible senselessness perhaps unrivalled in legal history.

Some bright executive decided that McDonalds should publish statements which appeared to accuse the McLibel Two of being liars. Perhaps the executive thought that such statements would counter the adverse media coverage.

In fact, it just allowed the McLibel Two to countersue McDonalds for libel. This meant that McDonalds became trapped in the litigation: they no longer could drop the case even if they wanted to.

They had to sit there and suffer. They could no longer escape from the trial. And they sat and they suffered for a very long time.

In the end, the case ran for 313 days in court, perhaps the longest libel trial in history. McDonalds managed to win only on some points, and in the end were awarded £20,000 in damages, which they never collected.

And in return for the decisions to sue and not drop the case, the gormless McDonalds executives ran up a legal bill of about £10,000,000 and secured a judicial ruling that McDonalds advertising was misleading, that children were exploited, that they were culpable for cruelty to animals, and paid low wages.

Stepping back, the fundamental flaw in McDonalds' approach was that someone thought that threatening libel proceedings provided a "quick win" against criticism. Sometimes it does, but sometimes the bluff can be called. And when it is called, then it can turn into a lengthy and very painful experience for the claimant.

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

On Two Types of Rudeness: Boris in China

I read that the Chinese media is attacking Boris Johnson for being 'rude, arrogant and disrespectful' at the Olympic ceremony - see here.

What a coincidence. I was just thinking China was being 'rude, arrogant and disrespectful' to Tibet.

Tuesday, 26 August 2008

On the Pub Smoking Ban

In the olden days, before the smoking ban, going into a strange pub could be an awkward ordeal.

After all, you didn't know what sort of people would be inside. You might have had to do an abrupt turn.

Now, you can always see a selection of the regulars standing outside, thus allowing you to make just the right decision at a distance.

This is progress.

Monday, 25 August 2008

COMING UP: Jack's Crap Libel Cases

Coming up shortly, the first of a sequence of posts detailing some of the most hapless, misconceived defamation cases ever - the cases which perhaps should never have been brought.

Where, in each case, the claimant puts themselves in a worse position had they not litigated at all. Each one a backfire, even the witless claimant "wins"...

On a Disgusting Ploy by Liberal Democrats

On the last day of the Olympics, the day of the handover to London, the Liberal Democrats sought to make a news story out of some stock Visit London video footage. This video footage included a brief glimpse of a notorious "modern art" work in an art gallery.

The Liberal Democrat ploy here was entirely artifical. The video footage was of dozens of scenes in London, including the art gallery, and the glimpse was of an art work, not of the subject. The video had been used for years without complaint.

(The art work in question, by Marcus Harvey, is itself of rather bad taste. It is of Myra Hindley, who tortured and killed several children. I wouldn't want to ban it, though I wouldn't want to see it either. It hung (and may well still hang) in a posh London art gallery.)

The BBC then fell for this "news story" completely, see here, even sending out an email news alert. Such news alerts are usually reserved for important deaths or the results of elections and major trials.

The news email said simply "The Liberal Democrats criticise the use of a portrait of murderer Myra Hindley in a video shown at a London 2012 event in Beijing".

(So it appears the initiative came from the Liberal Democrats, but even if not, they capitialised on it with all the PR savvy they could muster.)

No doubt the BBC news team thought that if they rushed the "news story" out it could have some desired anti-Boris effect. As it was, Boris commented wisely (when he shouldn't have to needed to comment at all), and - tellingly - the story then quickly slid down the BBC news site. One would never have thought it had been a "news story" worthy of an email news alert an hour or two before.

It was, in fact, a completely invented non-story, a mild example of what Nick Davies has called "Flat Earth News".

The Hindley image is powerful. It really should not be used by the Liberal Democrats for any cynical political purpose. Indeed it was, in my opinion, a disgusting ploy for them to do so. Disgust is a strong word, but think for one moment about the ultimate atrocious circumstances which give the power to that image.

And it is sad, but predictable, that the BBC news team tried to give the story such a boost on such a day.

But I will go further.

The video footage merely contained a brief glimpse of an art work in a London gallery. There was actually nothing wrong with featuring it at all.

It is a Good Thing that such "modern art" can be seen in this country, even if one thinks the stuff is in extremely bad taste (and poor quality), and such liberal and democratic freedoms should be celebrated.

Even by Liberal Democrats.

Sunday, 24 August 2008

On The Blogosphere At Its Most Efficient: BCA v Singh

This week saw the Blogosphere pull off something which struck me as quite remarkable.

The news that the British Chiropractic Association is suing Simon Singh, the leading science writer, for libel over a Guardian comment piece broke a week ago in the Sunday Telegraph.

Since then, apart from a brief mention in Nature, the story has not touched the mainstream media ("MSM").

This can be explained, I suspect, in that the only published source of information so far is still the Sunday Telegraph article. Until and unless there are any further public statements, there will not be any sustantive stuff in the MSM.

But the Blogosphere quickly and productively got to work.

Very soon, the original Guardian piece was republished in several places.

The "Streisand Effect" was getting under way (I saw it also called the "Obi Wan Effect" - which I kinda like). Placing the original article on a Russian server here was a particularly cute move.

Then Gimpy provided a quite superb analysis of the Guardian piece, providing sources and references for all the content here.

Over the week a range of bloggers from diverse backgrounds tossed the story around, making insightful links with the New Zealand threatened litigation and the upcoming NICE matter. This was a quite impressive multi-disciplinary effort. The best digest for this activity is the excellent Holford Watch site here.

The wonderful Blue Wode continues to provide regular full inventories of the relevant links here.

Even on the legalistic side, Dr Aust (a non-lawyer) significantly developed the legal analysis here .

All this productive and instructive activity was with almost no MSM coverage, and with only the barebones of the Sunday Telegraph piece to go on.

There is now a great deal of useful information and informed analysis which would be beyond the power of any just one blogger - and indeed beyond the power of any MSM pundit - to have put together over the same period.

Friday, 22 August 2008

The Ten Questions British Chiropractic Association Members Should Now Be Asking

The British Chiropractic Association has decided to sue Simon Singh, Britain’s leading science writer, for libel. They do not like something he said about them in a Guardian comment article.

At the moment , the only current source for this information is the Sunday Telegraph article - see link here.

However, in that article, Antoni Jakubowski, a member of the association's governing council, states that: "It wasn't a decision taken lightly” and "I know that a lot of thought went into this".

One would hope so. A decision to sue anyone should indeed never be taken lightly, and usually it should not be made at all.

A misconceived libel action can be an incredible financial and reputational disaster of the very first order.

It can be the maddest, saddest decision any person ever makes.

Ask Andrew Wakefield.

And also ask McDonalds about McLibel.

I set out below ten questions which BCA members should now ask the BCA. After all, the BCA is supposed to be promoting its members' interests and uses its members' money in doing so.

The answers to these questions may indicate to BCA members whether a sound decision was made or not.

These questions are not intended to be controversial, and they merely deal with matters which one would expect a responsible professional representative body to have dealt with carefully when pressing the red litigation button.

And these questions are also intended to be the sort of questions which any professional should ask of his or her representative body in these circumstances.

1. Who made the decision to litigate?

It should be made clear who made this important decision. Lawyers do not sue by themselves. Some person or group of persons must be responsible - and accountable for - this decision.

Not only who. but…

2. When and how was the decision made to litigate?

The news came to light last Sunday.

However, the Guardian article was published in April. If the decision was made soon after the alleged libel was published, then one must wonder why it took until this week for it to surface. If the decision was made more recently, then why was there such a delay?

And what process was followed to make sure it was a sound and properly-discussed decision? Was anyone missed out?

Also, what were the factors taken and not taken into account?

Then, after who, when, and how…

3. Why was this decision made?

Can the BCA provide both a clear statement of its objective in bringing this claim and an explantion for how it sees litigation as meeting that objective?

And is it a legitimate objective? One worthy of a professional association, proposing to litigate with its members' money?

Litigation is rarely the only course of action. However, bad decisions to litigate can arise when the other options are either not properly set out or considered.

What other options, if any, were rejected in favour of litigation, and why? The BCA should be also able to show why litigation was preferred over the other options.

And if it seems a good decision to make then…

4. What legal advice was sought and followed?

English libel litigation is highly specialised and, unless the claimant is a media company, then it is unlikely an in-house lawyer (if any) would have any relevant expertise.

Therefore, a responsible would-be claimant would usually instruct both a specialised solicitor and an experienced defamation barrister.

(In essence, generally speaking, a solicitor will prepare the case for trial, and the barrister will then present the case to the court.)

Both the solicitor and the barrister should have given to BCA their views on:

- the merits of the case,
- the potential defamatory meanings (if any) in respect of BCA's reputation (if any),
- which defences will be available to the defendant for each of those meanings, and
- whether the documentary evidence (and any expert evidence) will bear the forensic weight to be placed on it.

Any decision to litigate should be fully informed by - and consistent with - views on each of these points. Was it?

Any decision to litigate should always be on the assumption that it will go all the way and that you could lose.

It cannot just be assumed that the defendant will settle or surrender.

So there should also be advice now in place on costs and timings, which brings us to….

5. What financial provision has been made for bringing and potentially losing the claim?

Trials are unpredictable: either side can lose. In English civil litigation, the losing party pays the costs of the winning side.

Litigation is expensive. The BCA claim, which presumably will require expert evidence, could cost between two hundred and three hundred thousand pounds at first instance, and perhaps about the same again on appeal.

Before litigating, therefore, a responsible litigant would put in place financial provisions for a worst case scenario: a long trial requiring substantial expert evidence (think McLibel again), and losing at first instance or at the court of appeal.

Furthermore, some cases take an expensively long time to even get to court, sometimes up to three or four years, and may then never even get there. Ask Andrew Wakefield again.

The BCA have a prospect of taking a bad financial hit (as does Simon Singh).

Members of the BCA will need to know that any such hit will not adversely affect their workings of their representative body.

This is not the only thing to think through…

6. Was the decision considered from a media perspective?

What consideration, if any, was given to the predictable “Streisand Effect” of the alleged libel being repeated and popularised?

See, for example, here (deftly placed on a Russian server) and now also on many other sites.

And what consideration, if any, was given to the potential adverse impact this case could have on the reputation of the BCA and Chiropractic generally?

Libel litigants often suffer a counterproductive impact on their reputations generally, even if they prevail at court.

Also, by suing over an issue related to the efficacy of Chiropractic, the BCA are potentially also putting at risk the reputation of the whole discipline. They have needlessly created the scope for "Chiropractic on Trial", which they can be seen to lose.

A sensible libel litigant thereby has a comprehensive media strategy in place before commencing.

Which leads us to a related question…

7. Why is there still no press release or formal public statement?

Again, conceivably, there may be a good reason. But the lack of any public explanation is also prompting some rather damaging speculation.

And there is speculation as to a question which is "the Elephant in the Chiropractor's Waiting Room"…

8. Why not sue The Guardian?

This one rather stands out. Conceivably, there may be a good reason. But the lack of a public answer to this question is prompting some rather damaging speculation.

All of the above questions may have comforting answers, but…

9. In any event, is launching such an action really what the BCA should be doing?

The BCA can sue; it may perhaps have a good chance of success on some technical basis; and the actual decision to sue may have been soundly made, and the whole case may be financially resourced.

But is it really what such a professional body should be doing?

My own view, which I have expressed elsewhere, is that it appears that the BCA are seeking to censor an eminent science writer's contribution in (a) an expressly comment piece in (b) a quality newspaper to (c) the debate on a significant public health matter, that is (d) the treatment of sick children. This seems very unfortunate indeed.

At this point, read the "offending" article - here - again.

Yes, it is really harsh. But other professions, especially law and medicine, routinely put up with a lot worse.

And now think about the sheer costs of the BCA and the costs which the BCA wish to inflict on Simon Singh. Think about the reputational damage this could inflict on the BCA and chiropractic generally. And think, in particular, about whether you really want to be associated with such legalistic - and, in some people's views, even "bullying" - tactics. Does your profession not deserve a different approach?


But, even if it does seem a really good and sensible thing to do…

10. Most importantly, who (if anyone) is responsible for keeping the decision to continue with this case under review?

Once a claim is launched, it can take on a life of its own. There can be a reluctance to make any decision to drop a case.

However, a responsible claimant will keep the situation under constant review, taking account of the range of legal, reputational, and commercial/financial developments.

And a responsible claimant will take the difficult decision to drop a case when appropriate, even if it seemed a good idea at the time to bring it. Any stubbornness here may lead to a far worse outcome.


This all could become very serious stuff: so it is legitimate for BCA members - and others - to ask whether the BCA actually know what they are doing. And whether this action is really in the best interest of BCA members.

On a MUST READ blog on British Chiropractic Association v Simon Singh

Anyone following this issue should look at this MUST READ blog by Dr Aust - link .

This is an excellent piece by a non-lawyer, and one which carries the legal analysis forward significantly.

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

COMING UP: The Ten Questions British Chiropractic Association Members Should Now Be Asking the BCA

Later this week I will set out on this Blog the ten questions BCA members should perhaps now be asking of the BCA about launching this case.

Nothing controversial, just questions dealing with what one would hope a responsible professional representative body should have properly considered before risking (a) members' money, (b) possibly the reputation of the BCA, and (c) perhaps even the reputation of Chiropractic itself, on what increasingly appears to me to be a rather unfortunate enterprise.

It may well be that the BCA has already fully addressed the issues my questions will raise. After all, they did tell the Sunday Telegraph that a lot of thought had gone into the decision...


In the meantime, here's Ben Goldacre's brilliant summary of the unfortunate case:

"Pathetic, pathetic, pathetic, pathetic, crass, revealing, and pathetic"

Jack's Crap Criminal Cases 1 - Maja Krogh's Oyster Card

This post is the first of an ongoing series of the abuse of the criminal law by petty officialdom.

It will feature examples where the sanction of bringing a prosecution and giving someone a criminal record was woefully disproportionate and not appropriate in a civilized society.

The first Crap Criminal Case is that of Maja Krogh - see here.

Ms. Krogh now has a criminal record for not paying a 90p "Oyster Card" fare for use of London public transport.

Even making Jack's usual proviso that newspaper reports can be unreliable sources of legal news, this story has many of the sad, usual features of Crap Criminal Cases.

First, the role of the official. In this case, it was someone who clearly was at ease exercising authority, especially with a policeman in tow. It is painful but plausible to imagine the official ordering the woman and child off the bus with the other passengers watching the spectacle. As we will see, most Crap Criminal Cases are triggered not by professional and experienced police officers, but ill-trained and zealous civilians in fluorescent jackets.

Second, the counter-intuitive resort to the criminal process. Ms Krogh had an Oyster Card with credit. She could have scanned it. She could have paid any extra.

Either of these would have met the mischief. She had, on the newspaper report, a reasonable excuse for not paying. But no, the criminal process had to be invoked for Ms Krogh.

Third, the unconvincing attempt at justification - the defence of the undefensible. This time it was made on Transport for London's behalf by a Mr Steve Burton, "Director of community safety, enforcement and policing" at TfL. He is quoted as stating that TfL's position is:

"Our aim is not to hand out criminal records. Prosecuting fare evaders is not about 90p - it's about more than £30million of taxpayers' money lost every year through fare evasion."

Reading this statement made me want to vomit. A real live person is getting a criminal record over a trifle, and TfL thinks such a statement does any good?

Tuesday, 19 August 2008

On Massachusetts Politicians

Interesting politicans come from Massachusetts.

It may well be that a Massachusetts politican ends up as the next Vice President - see the story here.

But Jack's favourite politician from Massachusetts is neither of these, nor is Jack over impressed by the perhaps over-rated fellow "Jack" (Kennedy).

Jack's favourite is instead the liberal Republican William Weld, not widely known over here in England.

And why is this politician a favourite of this Blog?

Because of one single and perfect quote, which summed up the correct approach to all moral and economic policy:

"I believe the government should stay out of your wallet, and out of your bedroom."

Not that in my case, of course, the government would find too much of interest in either place.

On Getting the Criminal Law Out of TV Licences

It is a criminal offence for you to use a television, unless you have a licence.

This stark proposition has always made me deeply unhappy.

I agree that there should be public service television and radio broadcasting funded on a non-commercial basis. (However, I cannot see why such funding should only go to the BBC, but that is another argument.)

I can also somehow see the point of the funding coming from a charge payable by those who use televisions. (There are better ways.)

What really bothers me is the sanction for the non-payment of the charge.

You are given a criminal record because, simply, you used a television - still the primary source of information for most citizens.

(The misuse of the criminal law by the "State" and vested interests will be a recurring topic for this Blog.)

Moreover, you receive this criminal record for the sake of public service broadcasting, supposedly a public good in our civilized society.

If that is the price of public service broadcasting, then it is not worth it.

There is no reason why such a charge could not be enforceable as a civil debt, not as a tax with the threat of the criminal law behind it.

So I hope the internet renders the TV licence regime redundant. There may soon be no need for a separate televsison in the house.

And if this happens, the only real trace of this quite dreadful legal regime will be YouTube carrying some old videos of the nasty authoritarian TV licensing adverts.

And we will wonder why we ever put up with it.

Monday, 18 August 2008

On English Libel Law - A Brief Guide for the Perplexed

The legal action that the British Chiropractic Association has brought against Simon Singh means that many in the blogosphere are trying to understand the complexities of English libel law. So here is a brief guide.

1. The "claimant" (in this case the BCA) will first need to show that they have been defamed. This is a common law test and it usually means that the claimant's reputation has suffered. A defamatory statement in permanent form is called a "libel" (in transient form, it is a "slander").

The BCA are tereby complaining that a direct (or implied) statement about the BCA by Simon Singh has had the effect of lowering their reputation (rather than say the reputation of the Chiropractic generally).

2. Once the claimant has established that the statement is defamatory, the onus then shifts to the "defendant" (here, Simon Singh). This "reverse burden" of proof means that English libel law is regarded as unfair to defendants and too advantageous to the claimant.

3. There are three common defences: privilege, fair comment, justification. The defence adopted will depend mainly on what the claimant says is the defamatory meaning of the alleged libel. It does not appear that the defence has been served yet.

4. In English civil litigation, the losing party at Court will usually pay the legal fees in full for both parties (cf. USA). So if this case does go to Court, then either Simon Singh or the BCA will have a very hefty legal bill. This costs risk is the genuinely scary feature of English libel litigation - the costs often dwalf any damages. The legal costs of a libel case can be up to a million poumds.

5. The combination of the reverse burden of proof with the terrifying costs risk has meant that English libel law has often been abused by bullies, crooks and charlatans to close down public debate: Jeffrey Archer, Jonathan Aitken, David Irving, Robert Maxwell, etc.

6. Most cases, however, do not get to court. Only a small percentage of claim forms end up with fixed trial dates. For example, a case can be withdrawn or settled.

In summary, the BCA have adopted an action which means that they want the English High Court to ban Simon Singh from saying something which they allege to be defamatory about them. They also want damages and their costs for bringing the case. I suspect that they are expecting Simon Singh to settle, so as to avoid the terrifying costs risk.

Sunday, 17 August 2008

On GM Foods

I have changed my mind on GM Foods.

I used to be against them. Picking apart my objection, my position was generally confused and ill-informed.

In part I was wary of big business and skeptical of their selfless rhetoric. I am still wary, but there are also vested interests in resisting GM Foods. And it is the latter which I think will lead to higher prices for the poorest people.

And in part I also held a silly-sentimental view about authenticity. But that is bullshit. The foods we eat today are from generations of genetic engineering. To do this in a scientific deliberate manner is an issue of type and not principle.

Furthermore, our processed foods are teeming with artificial additions. Look at the list of ingredients on the first thing you see in your kitchen cupboard. This desire for authenticity is rightly derided today by Nick Cohen - see here. Why should the "authenticity" only attach itself to certain raw ingredients and be forgotten as we open some packet?

What tipped me to being pro-GM Foods was my realisation that they are simply necessary for dealing with staggering global population growth and world poverty. George Bridges deals with this here.

I did not mind the contribution of Prince Charles in this debate. Some fellow conservatives did - see Conservative Home. (If this sort of thing nudges a Tory towards republicanism, what would the behaviour of many other heirs have done?)

Prince Charles has a right to free expression. I happen to think he is right on architecture. I also find his interest in comparative religion refreshing for someone destined to be head of the Church of England. And by warming up the GM debate, he triggers another debate on the issues - even if his views are bonkers.

One blogger on Conservative Home ("NigelC") raised the issue of the UN IAASTD report, which he described as "the work of over 400 international scientists, on the future of global food production under the challenges of climate change and population pressure which concluded that transgenic GM crops didn't have much to offer".

Nice wording, which was actually copied and pasted directly form the Soil Association website - see here. To take such a statement without attributing it is not a promising way to contribute to any debate.

However I looked at this report - a summary of which is here and the fuller report is here

Read it for yourself, especially the latter, and you will find it extremely hard to square with the Soil Association's (and "NigelC"'s) take on it.

Conclusion 10 of the full report indeed says:

"Many of the challenges facing agriculture currently and in the future will require more innovative and integrated applications of existing knowledge, science and technology (formal, traditional and community-based), as well as new approaches for agricultural and natural resource management. Agricultural soil and biodiversity, nutrient, pest and water management, and the capacity to respond to environmental stresses such as climate change can be enhanced by traditional and local knowledge systems and current technologies. Technological options such as new genotypes of crops, livestock, fish and trees and advances in plant, livestock and fish breeding, biotechnology, remote sensing, agroecology, agroforestry, integrated pest and nutrient management and information and communication technologies (ICTs) will create opportunities for more resource-efficient and site-specific agriculture" [Emphasis added.]

The report as a whole makes some highly sensible points about intellectual property law, and it rightly emphasises that the benefits of improvement need to be shared fairly. But it does not support NigelC's point. One wonders if he just copied and pasted without actually reading the report itself.

But how far will my rejection of silly-sentimentalism go? What about free range foods? It is a tricky one. Animals do not have rights of course, but humans have an absolute duty not to be cruel. If there is no cruelty, however, what could be my possible objection? Why am I still free range?

Even accepting fully all the scientific and economic arguments in favour of battery hens, I still prefer free range (for now). The reason is entirely aesthetic. I find the ugliness of the battery farm too much for me. I do not want to be part of it.

However, I wonder how long I can maintain this noble position in the age of millions of starving children.

For that would be rather ugly too.

On Simon Singh against the Chiropractors

The Chiropractic is generally Woo. There is some evidence that it helps with back pain, but its wider claims are (in my view) without serious foundation.

The extent of the efficacy of Chiropractic is an important area for a public debate about public health. And such a debate should not be subject to the veto of vested commercial interests.

However, the British Chiropractic Association have issued a writ against the leading science writer Simon Singh. The newspaper report for this development is here.

This claim is brought in respect of a (now removed) comment piece in The Guardian, printed in full here and (with notes) here. (A tip of Jack's Hat to Svetlana Pertsovich, Gimpy and Blue Wode for these links.)

In simple terms, the BCA wants the High Court to ban Simon Singh from saying something about them.

I will be watching this case keenly. The exact details of the claim and of the defence have not been published. But going just on what has been reported, I have three very general thoughts.

First, the BCA is able to sue because it is a "legal person", that is a company. If it were a public authority, like the statutory General Chiropractic Council, it would not be able to sue under the "Derbyshire Rule" preventing such bodies from suing for defamation. It would be good if the High Court used this case to extend the Derbyshire Rule to such representative bodies: a nice gunshot wound to the BCA's own foot.

Second, even if the Derbyshire Rule is not extended, the article was by Britain's leading science writer in the comment section of a quality newspaper discussing concerns about an important aspect of public health, that is the treatment of sick children. If Article 10 of the ECHR, which protects freedom of expression, does not apply here, then we may as well not have a Human Rights Act. Singh's article is exactly the sort of contribution to public debate which should have legal protection from the intervention from commercial interests.

Third, as my friend Mojo says on another forum, there is simple advice to anyone bringing a libel case. Don't. Just don't. Even if my two concerns above did not apply, such cases are invariably counterproductive. Even now the BCA are being roundly criticised in the blogosphere and the alleged libel repeated and repeated.

This is simply not a matter for the Court room. The fact that Woos use legal muscle is both depressing and suggestive. But it doesn't necessarily mean they will prevail.

The Devil may well have the best tunes, but not always the best lawyers.