So I forgot to tell you about a slightly odd and surprising E-mail exchange that I had last week. The E-mail pinging was between me and my MP, Oliver Letwin.
It all started, as so much does now, with Twitter. There was a tweet from someone asking us to send a letter to our MP before the last Wednesday’s debate in Parliament on libel law. There was a link to a prepared letter and then a website that directed you to your MP's E-mail address. So I did what they asked. Our libel laws are a little bit lax and do need some sorting out, so I cut and pasted the following letter,
Dear Mr Letwin,
Tomorrow there is a debate in parliament on the subject of libel reform.
English libel laws are being used to stifle scientific debate in the UK, to the point where many scientists are not bothering to make their opinions heard. Those that do criticise others are being heavily punished for doing so.
Medical doctor and journalist Ben Goldacre was recently involved in a libel battle following his criticism of a vitamin salesman who claimed that anti-retroviral drugs were ineffective in treating AIDS and offered his vitamins as an alternative. Despite the fact that Goldacre won, they still came out of it £150,000 poorer. The science author Simon Singh is going through a similar situation right now.
In 1961, the German paediatrician Widukind Lenz criticised the drug Thalidomide. By this time, at least 10,000 children had been born with birth defects. If he, and all other scientists since, had refused to make their criticism known for fear of legal action, the deformities may still be continuing today.
If we put a stop to criticism, we not only put an end to our ability to know which of our current treatments are effective and safe, but we also make it impossible to evaluate the treatments of the future.
We must do everything we can to reform our uniquely repressive English libel system.
The future health of everyone in this country and the world depends on it.
A little hyperbole laden maybe but it makes the point and so I sent it and thought no more about it.
So you can imagine my surprise when I opened my inbox ( not a uferism) to see a reply. “I'm sure it's just an automatic response thing” I thought to myself as I clicked on it. I couldn't have been more wrong.
It may have been an underling that wrote the reply but it contained this line,
I am more than willing to do some research of my own to remedy this lack of knowledge -- but I think I ought to start by meeting you, so that you can brief me first on what I need to be looking for.
By meeting with me? Oh no no no no. That wasn't supposed to happen. I'm an armchair grumpy. More than happy to fire of an e-mail or sign an on-line petition but meet my MP! About something that I know next to nothing! What to do, what to do?
There was only one sensible and rational thing to do. Treat it as I treat all my problems, ignore it. Which I did. For about a day and a half. Then I decided that I was being rude. So I replied, thanking him for the swiftness of his reply and the slowness of mine (I didn't mention that I was ignoring his reply) but admitting that I knew little about the subject but was aware of those high profile cases. I also used the line “By "public interest" I mean in a scientific way and not the Max Mosley way.” which I was quite proud of.
He, again, replied promptly (show off), saying,
“Clearly, there is a delicate balance to be struck between protecting individuals against highly destructive and unfair allegations and, on the other hand, permitting wide and open public debate about matters of genuine public interest including scientific issues of general importance.
I shall discuss all this with my colleagues in our Justice team and commission some work on the question of whether current or proposed laws are threatening to choke off important scientific debate.”
I have to admit that I am very happy with the service that I have received for my MP. It's a shame that he is a Tory but maybe the taxpayer’s money spent to repair a pipe under his tennis court wasn't a waste of time after all. Although I am intrigued by the Tory Justice Team. Please be wearing capes, please be wearing capes.