Economics and similar, for the sleep-deprived

A subtle change has been made to the comments links, so they no longer pop up. Does this in any way help with the problem about comments not appearing on permalinked posts, readers?

Update: seemingly not

Update: Oh yeah!

Thursday, December 09, 2010

If this is "libel reform" I want my old job back

Fair do's he's laid it on the line and said it in so many words. This is really not all that much to do with the rest of the libel reform campaign - Goldacre is arguing here for two quite controversial proposals.

1. That "scientists" (which since he is also including his own lawsuit and Simon Singh's, apparently includes science journalists writing outside their specialist field of expertise) should have their own special cut-out from the libel laws.

2. That they should not only have a safe-harbour built into the law, but they should be protected from people suing them, threatening to sue them or even having their lawyers write letters which might be interpreted as a threat to sue them. Or possibly that the safe-harbour should be so strongly worded that every scientist (broadly defined) should always be totally confident that they can never be sued.

I just don't think this dog is going to hunt. Most of (1) above is available already - the Appeal Court judgement in BCA vs Singh has established that questions of science have to be decided on their scientific merit by standards appropriate to scientists and that interpretation of scientific literature is more like comment ("honest opinion) than assertion, which is all that could be reasonably asked in this line.

And (2) is just impossible to give, as I keep saying. You can't, other than in very unusual cases, deny people access to the courts. It's a human right.

The trouble with libel law is that it's so bloody expensive and time-consuming. There is very little wrong with the law itself. As you'd expect - like every other part of the English civil code, it's been around for a very long time and has been case-hardened and adapted. It's an evolved system. Britain gets a lot of big advantages from having a legal system that everyone else wants to use; "libel tourism" isn't really, IMO, a very different phenomenon from the general tendency of people from other countries to issue their bonds and sign their contracts in the best place for doing so.

Addendum: Of course, London's status as an international commercial law centre is, speaking as an economist here, the real root of the problem. The reason why libel is so bloody expensive here is that the opportunity cost of the time of everyone involved is what they could earn doing the commercial bar. If the cost of libel actions were to be reduced, that would have consequences for the quality of the people who would make themselves available to do the work, which in turn could have unpredictable consequences for the kind of judgements we got.

Further addendum: actually the more I think about it, the more I think it's really rather cheeky for BG to have added his own case and Simon Singh's to the top of this article. Science is one thing and journalism is another. It's not at all clear that the purposes served by scientists criticising one another's work in their specialist literature are the same as those served by Simon Singh having a go at the spinebenders in the Guardian. This amalgamation of the interests of researchers being bullied by pharmaceutical companies, with those of media organisations who want to keep their legal bills down, makes a certain kind of tactical sense I suppose, but it's really not particularly ideologically coherent.
19 comments this item posted by the management 12/09/2010 02:24:00 AM

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