The Mail in “against libel” shock

Any support for the Sense About Science campaign to prevent libel laws from being used over issues of scientific evidence must be a good thing. Only, in the case of the Daily Mail championing Simon Singh, it’s not totally clear whether they’re backing his cause, or recruiting him to their own.

mail singh portrait

When I blogged at Liberal Conspiracy about libel and privacy laws, I suggested that Mr Justice Eady was enjoying a moment of grace with the press. That moment is over now, as far as the Mail is concerned:

Justice Eady’s critics accuse him of creating, almost single-handedly, a privacy law in Britain as a result of his interpretations of the 1998 Human Rights Act, in which he invariably seems to give more weight to privacy than to freedom of expression.

Most notably, Justice Eady ruled in a case involving Formula One boss Max Mosley that it was wrong for the News of the World to expose his liking for sadomasochistic orgies with paid ‘ professional dominatrices’, saying: ‘I accept that such behaviour is viewed by some people with distaste and moral disapproval, but in the light of modern rights-based jurisprudence that does not provide any justification for the intrusion on the personal privacy of the claimant.’

In another high-profile case, he stopped a cuckolded husband selling his story to the Press about a sporting celebrity who had seduced the husband’s wife. Adulterers, said the judge, deserve privacy like anyone else.

Via a succession of such rulings, the judge has built up a formidable body of case law upon which public figures can rely when they wish to gag newspapers or publishers.

Daily Mail, “Back ‘cures’, a brave scientist and an epic court battle: How Britain’s libel laws are threatening free speech” (1 July 2009)

What’s really interesting is how the Mail bend Singh into their own ongoing narratives. Before you even get into the body copy, just in the headline, Singh has been labelled as the “brave scientist” going up against an implaccable system – just as Andrew Wakefield was a “brave scientist” when the Mail was generating vaccine terror. The medical evidence is presented in standard ‘debate’ style: the chiropractors claims are balanced with a neutral “However, many in the traditional medical profession view the therapy with deep suspicion.”

And the Mail is careful to keep this within the limits of free speech rather than evidence or public interest: Singh, the article says, “won’t stop until he has guaranteed that the principle of free speech  –  which is something about which judges such as Justice Eady seem remarkably nonchalant  –  remains at the very heart of our British way of life.” They’re on the right side for now. But this isn’t a watershed in the Mail’s commitment to accurate journalism and responsible medical coverage. The medical pages today contain the usual mix of wonder drugs and alarmism, and when Singh’s case is over, they’ll be ready for their next Wakefield.

New post on Liberal Conspiracy: How Judge Eady went from press villain to hero

I’ve got a new post up at Liberal Conspiracy, where I ramble speculatively about the way Mr Justice Eady’s decisions on media law seem to be acting in combination against scrutiny at all levels of reporting: the sex scandal, science coverage, and anonymous whistle-blowing:

It’s not unusual for public figures to experience severe reversals of reputation, and the distance between “nation’s sweetheart” and “national disgrace” can be as short as a few column inches. But Mr Justice Eady’s recent rehabilitation in the eyes of the press is a remarkable one – for the swiftness with which some editors have shifted position, and for what it suggests about the future possibilities for scrutiny in the media.

Read the rest here…

Edit: I accidentally gave Eady a peerage, so I’ve fixed that here.