Nature journal wins libel case, highlights holes in UK defamation law
By Liat Clark
06 July 12
A three-year long libel case brought against a science journal has been dismissed, in a move that highlights the need for a public interest clause in UK defamation law to protect the free press.
"The judgment is an important victory for free speech, and is a shot in the arm for the public interest defence of qualified privilege," said Niri Shan, the solicitor who represented Nature and its associated parties.
"Having said that, the fact that the claimant was able to bring this matter to trial highlights the urgent need for libel reform in the area of science reporting, as the law, as it currently stands, is stifling scientific debate."
Mohamed El Naschie, former editor of the Chaos, Solitons and Fractals (CSF) journal, brought the case against Nature after it published a story about his retirement that included details of how he used the journal to self-publish papers that had not been subject to peer review.
After reviewing the evidence -- including communication between Nature and individuals working in the field, who repeatedly referred to El Naschie's papers as poor quality -- Justice Sharp found the article to be "substantially true". She confirmed that it was "of the highest public interest" that scientific journals adhere to ethical guidelines, such as peer review, and ruled in favour of Nature's Reynolds privilege for responsible journalism defence.
In her ruling, Justice Sharp wrote: "the Claimant ought to have run CSF in a way which promoted and safeguarded the integrity of the academic record. Instead he was substantially concerned with promoting himself and his theories."
"It is apparent that [he] had little if any interest in the norms of scientific publishing or the ethical considerations which underpinned them."
El Naschie even admitted during the trial that despite not seeing the guidelines dictated by his overarching publisher Elsevier, he would never have followed them anyway.
Reacting to the news, libel campaigner Tracey Brown of Sense About Science said a three-year long court battle was well out of the reach of most people, and the fact that the Defamation Bill offers no public interest clause could be damaging to free speech.
"While the libel laws are complicated the issues aren't," she said. "Do we want a society where people don't speak out, or one where free and open discussion is possible? The government needs to bite the bullet and draft a new public interest defence to achieve the better and workable protection for free speech that has been promised."
A similar case came to the courts in 2008 when the British Chirporactic Association sued Simon Singh for implying its members promoted bogus treatments. Two years later and £200,000 poorer, Singh won his battle. Another two years later however, and it does not seem to have impacted the law.
In Singh's case the defence had been fair comment, something the ruling judge commented at the time as being, rather worryingly, still defined in textbooks as "dogged by misleading terminology".
The latest amendments to the Defamation Bill, announced in May 2012, do not go far enough to solve the issues of public interest and fair comment, say campaigners. A petition signed by more than 60,000 people was presented to Downing Street on 27 June by Brian Cox, Dara O Briain and Dave Gorman, staunch supporters of the public interest issue.