This was the last in an Advent Calendar for Spear’s Magazine of influential charities you’ve never heard of. It features Index on Censorship.
To the heart of the law
My cousin had a heart attack the week before Advent. He seems fine now, thank you, but I’d like to think that the treatments and medical implants he was given will prevent a recurrence. But in fact, they may not, they may even be counterproductive, not because of medical incompetence but because of an unhappy quirk of UK law. The final charity in our Advent Calendar is urgently straightening it out.
Dr Peter Wilmshurst, a cardiologist, designed and worked on a clinical trial to evaluate a heart implant made by NMT Medical, an American company. The trial found that the implant made little difference. When Dr Wilmshurst raised concerns about the trial in a medical conference and an academic journal – which you might think is a legitimate and important part of his job as a research scientist – NYT Medical sued him for libel. He had to spend over £100,000 of his own money and all his free time for more than three years defending himself and the right to discuss empirical scientific findings. Many other scientists would probably have given up: hence quite probably much literally vital information is hidden because of our libel laws.
These same laws were used to drag science writers Dr Simon Singh and Dr Ben Goldacre through the courts (all three unsuccessfully) for highlighting ineffective and dangerous medical practices. They’re now very active in a campaign to reform the UK’s libel laws, supported by the Sunday Times, The Times, Telegraph and Guardian among many others. Last year, the campaign’s rather excellent slogan was: “All we want for Christmas is for our MPs to back libel reform in the Queen’s Speech”. Santa brought that, and a Bill is now in the House of Lords. But the work isn’t over. The current Bill fixes some problems but “wouldn’t have helped me” says Ben because it still needs augmenting to allow a defence of acting in the public interest.
There is now a vital, and short, opportunity to get this right. According to Mike Harris, CEO of Index on Censorship, one of the charities co-ordinating the campaign, “This is the first wholesale review of libel laws since 1843. Chances to reform the libel laws around less frequently than Halley’s Comet.” Which some say was the bright ‘star’ over Bethlehem all those years ago whose special new arrival we celebrate this week.
If you are interested in supporting the work of Index on Censorship, the Arts Council may double your donation. Please speak to Fern Potter on 0207 324 2522 for more information.
Make credit card donations through http://www.indexoncensorship.org/donate/ You can set up a standing order or to discuss donations on the number above. Index on Censorship is the trading name of the Writers And Scholars Educational Trust which is Registered Charity No. 325003