It is testament to Singh’s reputation as a fascinating writer and speaker that such a crowd turned out during a furious thunderstorm in Oxford on Thursday. The Blue Boar Lecture Theatre was packed with dripping spectators, and they were not disappointed.
Singh has clearly given this same talk many times before, but only as of Saturday has he been able to begin it with a picture of a newborn baby; his and his wife’s first child. Such endearing minor changes aside, all the practice has made him an interesting, often hilarious speaker, with a really important message about alternative medicine and, more importantly, about the need for libel reform in Britain.
Singh’s ongoing libel case is over an article he wrote in The Guardian on the claims of chiropractic medicine. He recounted how, after being told he was going to be sued by the British Chiropractic Association, he ran to The Guardian legal team. ‘What are we going to do about this?’ he asked, to which their automatic response was, ‘Hey! What do you mean “we”?’
However, unlike his last speech at the Oxford Union, the Oxford Literary Festival hosts a considerably older audience and, while they laughed appreciatively at this well-delivered anecdote and Singh’s more scientifically accurate re-recording of Katie Melua’s 9 Million Bicycles track, I couldn’t help but feel that many had long ago made up their minds about many of the issues he was discussing.
‘Well, he simply didn’t seem to have a proper grasp of the memory of water involved in homeopathy’, I overheard one older woman mention as we left the event. I found it hard to fight the urge to grab her, shake her and insist, ‘No, you simply don’t seem to have a proper grasp of the extent to which he has scientifically analysed both the claims and the research about homeopathy and come to a highly informed opinion about it as covered in his detailed book Trick or Treatment!’
My frustration with the audience did not stop there. After his speech there were several questions asking whether he could have made clear that his article was his opinion rather than fact in order to escape the libel case. One cannot help but feel such a line of questioning rather misses the point of why he is standing by his article and fighting the case. He thinks what he said was right and attempts to water it down, even if it might have saved him a legal battle, would have prevented important information being available to the public. He is doing what he thinks is right.
Constant self-censorship amongst journalists and scientists for fear of expensive libel cases is one of the unquantifiable damages of having a system which works in favour of the wealthy and the big corporations rather than those with points to make in the public interest. We clearly need better libel legislation in Britain when even winning a libel case can result in un-reclaimable costs in the hundreds of thousands – equivalent to the value of a small house – for the individual or publisher.
Sadly, this particular Christchurch appearance just seemed to lack the buzzing and open-minded atmosphere of the Union event. I think the Literary Festival really should be attracting more student audience members; while opening Oxford up to members of the public is admirable, I cannot help but feel Oxford students could are missing out on a varied, interesting, and well-organised series of events because of a lack of publicity and, possibly more importantly, because of a need for student discounts.
Trick or Treatment: Alternative Medicine on Trial by Professor Edzard Ernst and Simon Singh is published by Corgi Books and available on Amazon