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The perils of being a science journalist in Britain

WOKING, ENGLAND — A few nights ago, I watched a compelling BBC2 television news report about what is being called “the biggest toxic dumping scandal of the 21st century” — the 2006 illegal offloading of toxic chemical waste in the Ivory Coast by the global commodities trader Trafigura.

The Ivory Coast government, Greenpeace and others claim that about 31,000 people were injured, including at least 12 who died, after being exposed to the highly hazardous waste. The dumping was done, according to just-revealed internal Trafigura emails, because the company wanted to save money for its investors.

Although Trafigura continues to deny any wrongdoing, it agreed last week to a settlement of about $1,500 to each of the 31,000 victims.

Using the courts to silence the press?
But it wasn’t only the story itself that stunned me. I was also astonished to hear the BBC journalists describe how the reporting of the story had been essentially suppressed in Europe’s mainstream media until last week. Only by banding together did the BBC and other media outlets dare to go public with the information they’d uncovered.

Explains David Leigh, an editor at the British newspaper The Guardian, one of the news organizations involved in this team effort:

Most [journalists] concerned had received legal threats from Trafigura, which had reduced mainstream media coverage elsewhere to little more than a whisper. This time, the reporters were determined not to be picked off one by one. They included journalists from Norway, the Netherlands and Estonia, and Meirion Jones from BBC2’s Newsnight, which has led the way in doggedly analysing Trafigura’s activities. …
This kind of co-operation is a reaction to the increasingly aggressive “reputation management” ploys of big business, with UK lawyers hired to put the frighteners on worldwide media. It has been a heavily advertised line of business for firms of lobbyists who seek to exploit the quirks of British media law.

A bogus case?
Then there is the case, which was revisisted in the news this week, of the British science journalist Simon Singh, who is being sued by the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) for writing in The Guardian last year that the BCA promotes “bogus treatments” when it claims that chiropractic care can help children with such things as ear infections, asthma and sleeping problems.

Singh offers his evidence for why he thinks the treatments are bogus, but that may not be enough of a defense under English law.

The problem is Britain’s notorious libel laws. As evolutionary biologist and author Olivia Judson blogged in the New York Times last week, the average cost of defending a libel case in England “is 140 times greater than it is in most of the rest of Europe.”

English law also highly favors the claimant over the defendant. Singh has estimated that even if he wins his case, he’ll be out of pocket about $41,500. And if he loses, his personal costs will skyrocket to $800,000. (Court losers in England apparently must pay the legal expenses of the winner.)

Who should be worried?
“All this is a problem for journalists generally, not just for those writing about science, and not just for those in Britain,” writes Judson. “English libel law can have a global reach: there have been several high-profile examples of foreign journalists being sued for libel in the English courts over statements published on foreign websites or by foreign publishers.”

At a British political event this week, another evolutionary biologist (and famous atheist), Richard Dawkins, called Singh a “courageous hero” and warned that if England’s libel laws are not changed, they could have “disastrous consequences” for the public interest.

“I and many of my colleagues fear that if Simon loses it will have major implications on the freedom of scientists, researchers and other commentators to engage in robust criticism of scientific and pseudo-scientific work,” Dawkins said. “It is possible in medicine, even when you intend to do good, to do harm instead. That’s why science thrives on actively encouraging criticism, rather than stifling it.”

Makes me glad I’m heading home soon.

Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Jane Kirtley on 09/23/2009 - 03:57 pm.

    That’s the reason several states, including New York, have enacted “libel tourism” laws, to prevent libel judgments entered in foreign courts that don’t uphold free expression principles from being enforced here in the United States.

    Being based in the U.S. doesn’t protect you from a law suit. If you publish online, and your story can be downloaded in another country, the odds are that you can be sued there. Many countries will assert jurisdiction even if only a handful of people read your story, as long as the plaintiff can claim he/she/it resides there or does business there, and that his/her/its reputation was harmed there.

    Congress is also considering “libel tourism” legislation.

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