Over the years, I’ve pointed out just how horrible British libel laws are. If there is a set of laws more designed to be used and abused by the wealthy to silence criticism, it’s British libel laws. Indeed, I was pointing out the travesty that is British libel law in the context of David Irving’s use of it to try to silence Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt years before Simon Singh became a cause celebre in the skeptical community after the British Chiropractic Association sued him on the flimsiest of grounds. Fortunately, the BCA lost, but only after coming very close to winning and costing Singh a lot of money to defend. Given the how onerous the libel laws in the U.K. are, I’ve said many times that, if I lived in the U.K., I wouldn’t be blogging. It’s way too risky. Even here in the good ol’ USA, bloggers aren’t entirely safe, thanks to the phenomenon of libel tourism. Actually, that was true until recently, when the U.S. passed a law prohibiting the collection of defamation judgments through U.S. courts from nations whose libel laws are not consistent with the First Amendment. The law also protects Internet service providers against such actions.
Despite campaigns to reform British libel laws and keep libel laws out of science, however, British libel laws remain an atrocity against free speech. Another example of how these laws are used by cranks to try to shut down legitimate criticism surfaced last week while I was away. Actually, it’s a story I knew about a month ago but, because I was asked not to write about it, I did not blog about it, even though I wanted to do so really, really bad. Fortunately, the the Quackometer has written about it now, making it public knowledge:
In his Spiked article, Michael Fitzpatrick describes how anyone who dares stand up against the cabal of celebrity know-nothings is likely to face “intimidation, threats of litigation and ad hominem attacks”.
It is therefore not surprising that Offit himself is facing a legal challenge to his book in the UK – the natural home of the misconceived libel case.
According to a BMJ news report, Richard Barr threatened libel action over a single sentence in the book that claimed that, as a solicitor, he had personally paid Andrew Wakefield money to “carry out a study for the purpose of the MMR litigation”.
Richard Barr, who is currently a Director of the Society of Homeopaths, an organisations whose members promote their own alternatives to MMR, was the solicitor who was at the heart of the MMR scare with Andrew Wakefield.
I found out about this when a British blogger, who had been originally sent a copy of Dr. Offit’s book to review, received an e-mail from Dr. Offit’s British publisher, Basic Books, requesting the review copy back and informing the blogger that “for legal reasons we have had to cancel the publication of this book.” I had to tell the blogger that I had no idea what this was about, but it didn’t take me long to find out that Richard Barr was threatening legal action against Perseus over one sentence. A week later, I somehow missed a story published in the BMJ that described what had happened:
Basic Books, the book’s publisher, has agreed to remove a sentence suggesting that Mr Barr personally paid money to Andrew Wakefield, the doctor who hypothesised that the vaccine might cause autism, to carry out a study for the purpose of the MMR litigation.
In fact Dr Wakefield’s fees of Â£440â000 (â¬524,000; $714,000) as an expert witness in the case came from the Legal Aid Board, now the Legal Services Commission, which agreed to fund the study.
This is, of course, highly disingenuous in that there is copious evidence that Richard Barr did indeed pay for the “research” done by Andrew Wakefield’s group whose reporting sparked the MMR scare that led to dramatic declines in MMR uptake in the U.K. and the subsequent resurgence of measles in the U.K. True, Barr didn’t personally pay Andrew Wakefield, but, as Brian Deer reported, Barr had directed large payments to Wakefield through the Legal Aid Board (now the Legal Services Commission), a fund run by the U.K. government to assist poor people in having access to justice. As revealed in a freedom of information request, the total payment directed to Andrew Wakefield was Â£435,643 plus expenses. Although Barr didn’t directly pay Wakefield himself, he might as well have. Wakefield’s work to try to discredit the MMR vaccination was trial lawyer-purchased science, bought and paid for to the tune of Â£150 per hour through the efforts of Richard Barr. In fact, as Le Canard Noir points out, the ultimate payouts, as revealed from further documents obtained from the U.K. Legal Services Commission, show huge amounts of money paid out as fees and expenses to the scientific “experts” under Wakefield’s direction:
In addition to the personal payments was an initial award of Â£55,000, applied for by Wakefield in June 1996 – but, like the hourly fees, never declared to the Lancet, as it should have been – for the express purpose of conducting the research later submitted to the journal. This start-up funding was part of a staggering Â£18m of taxpayers’ money eventually shared among a group of doctors and lawyers, working under Barr’s and Wakefield’s direction, to try to prove that MMR caused the previously unheard-of “syndrome”. Yet more surprising, Wakefield had predicted the existence of such a syndrome – which he would later dub “autistic enterocolitis” – before he carried out the research.
This Barr-Wakefield deal was the foundation of the vaccine crisis, both in Britain and throughout the world. “I have mentioned to you before that the prime objective is to produce unassailable evidence in court so as to convince a court that these vaccines are dangerous,” the lawyer reminded the doctor in a confidential letter, six months before the Lancet report.
Ultimately, Wakefield’s work in the 1990s resulted in the infamous (and now retracted) Lancet paper in 1998 detailing a case series of 12 children and implicating the MMR as an etiological factor contributing to a syndrome of regressive autism and enterocolitis. The reason for this long overdue retraction was that it was shown quite convincingly by Brian Deer that Wakefield had committed scientific fraud. Of course, the truly odd thing about Barr’s legal intimidation is that as I noted when I reviewed Dr. Offit’s book, I noted that he said very little about Andrew Wakefield. Indeed, Wakefield was hardly mentioned. Indeed, the sentence that Mr. Barr claims to object to didn’t even raise an eyebrow, other than due to the utter brevity that Dr. Offit used to describe the entire incident. Why Dr. Offit chose to downplay the Wakefield incident so in this book, I don’t know, but I did find it odd. Unfortunately, British libel laws being what they are, even relegating the Wakefield affair to such minor coverage in relationship to its importance in the MMR scare in the U.K. over the last 13 years is, thanks to the perverse vagaries of British libel law, even that is no protection.
Even the new U.S. law, although it helps, doesn’t prevent mischief. The reason, of course, is that usually the goal of cranks is not to win a judgment, but to shut down criticism by any means necessary. To that end, even though it would have been pretty pointless for Barr to sue Dr. Offit directly, legal threats against his U.K. publisher are very effective. All Barr has to accomplish is–if you’ll forgive the term–to raise the bar on the costs of publication to the point that publishing Dr. Offit’s book can’t be profitable. Given the low profit margin of most books, likely Dr. Offit’s included, a few legal fees spent to fend off threats like that of Mr. Barr go a long way towards discouraging publishers from publishing critical or controversial books. That’s the point.
Perhaps the most bizarre thing I learned about this case is that Richard Barr is now on the Board of Directors of the Society of Homeopaths (SOH). Talk about bringing it all back home! A bit more than three years ago, it was the SOH that used legal thuggery to threaten Le Canard Noir to force his ISP to take down a post critical of the SOH and how it promoted homeopathy as a means of combatting malaria. In light of knowing that Richard Barr is on the SOH Board of Directors, it’s all making sense now. I don’t know if Barr was a director back in 2007, but it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if he was. The tactic of threatening legal action to shut up those expressing inconvenient opinions is so Richard Barr. It also makes sense because of the anti-vaccine views promulgated by members of the SOH.
Actually, in my six-plus years of blogging, one thing I’ve learned is that it’s a sina qua non of cranks of all stripes, be they homeopaths, anti-vaccine loons, or many other varieties of boosters of pseudoscience that they cannot tolerate criticism from supporters of science. Consequently, they often lash out, either in the form of ad hominem attacks, attempts to “out” pseudonymous critics (many of which I’ve weathered through the years, so much so that such threats cause little more than a huge yawn in me when I encounter them), and, in extreme cases, threats of libel actions against those who have the temerity to call them out on their pseudoscience, as Dr. Offit called out various members of the anti-vaccine movement in his book. In the U.S., the law is informed by the First Amendment, which means that the bar for proving libel is high, making frivolous defamation suits a long run for a short slide. They’re rarely worth it for the crank. Unfortunately, in the U.K., they are quite often worth it, because the bar for proving libel is so low and the cost of defending against it is so high. Barr merely took advantage of that situation and, since U.S. law has placed Dr. Offit himself for all practical purposes beyond reach of British libel law, decided to go after Dr. Offit’s publisher.
Sadly, this case is yet another of a long and sordid line of frivolous libel actions and threats of libel actions that have been either brought or threatened in British courts in order to silence defenders of science-based medicine. In this case, even though most likely Dr. Offit’s book will ultimately be published in the U.K., the one mention of a key feature in the MMR scare will have succeeded in having his name scrubbed from it. That is the cost of Britain’s insane libel laws.
47 replies on “Society of Homeopaths director and MMR solicitor Richard Barr: Using British libel law to silence Paul Offit”
The tactic of threatening legal action to shut up those expressing inconvenient opinions is so Richard Barr. i am with you, man
Having read Offit’s ‘Autism’s False Prophets’ and then ‘Deadly Choices’, I thought there was less Wakefield in the latter because he got a good going-over in the former?
Richard Barr and six other directors of the Society of Homeopaths are the subject of complaints to the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority for claims made on their website:
Homeopaths Caught In The Act
Non-Homeopaths Caught In The Act
Richard Barr’s Recurrent Memory Problems
Honesty Is No Barr To Success
And critics of corporations.
(McLibel available on Google Video.)
Would the members of a society of homeopaths be sociopaths ?
By the way, from the Wikipedia article I linked to above:
I don’t understand why this seems to have had no impact.
I got an email from the Libel Reform Campaign that suggests the government bill to change libel law is imminent and the group is doing presentations to MPs on the 10th in anticipation of it. No detail yet of what the draft bill says though I assume it will try to curb the worst excesses of the system and hopefully address all the concerns raised by campaigners.
Amazon.co.uk sent me my copy last month. I have not finished to book yet, but if anyone in Scotland/UK wanted to have it when I am done, I will happily pass it on 🙂
Of course, the other option for the publisher would be to change the sentence to stating that Barr directed funds from the Legal Aid Board to Wakefield, etc. That would still leave them open to a suit, but, since it is factually correct and, as I understand, provably so, the cost of litigation would, in the end, be a wash, since if Barr lost, he would bear all legal costs.
I will send my copy of the book, when I’m done with it, to anyone in the UK for the cost of the book plus shipping. The shipping I’ll keep, but the cost of the book I’ll donate to a humanitarian foundation of the buyer’s choice. I hope others will do the same.
You cannot stop the transmission.
It is my opinion that Richard Barr will never, never, never in a million years sue Offit for libel about what Offit said about a relationship between Barr and Wakefield.
If Barr does sue, then all records of all transactions and of all meetings between Barr and Wakefield become discoverable.
Barr and Wakefield have probably shredded everything. That will show up as a gigantic hole in the record where Barr authorized payments to Wakefield and has nothing to show for those payments (because it was all shredded).
“Shutting down criticism” on the net is alive and well :
Call them what you will- nuisance suits, time-killers, money-wasters, stomach-acid-producers- Americans are certainly familiar with frivolous legal action ( Bolen; Doctors’ Data vs. Dr. Barrett @ Quackwatch. See also “recent postings”: credential watch re Wiki-pedia; Phillips; 2/14/11).
“Internet Postings Alone Do not Constitute ‘Doing Business’ in NY” ( insuranceadvocate.com; 8-31-10) relates the case of Lee Phillips, who criticized a well-known woo entrepreneur’s “PhD” and found himself in a NY court with *2* suits against him.( Phillips, a physicist for the US Navy, probably could no longer tolerate hearing the word “quantum” bandied about in inappropriate contexts.) Although his blog only earned about $100 from ads in the few years of its existence, the woo-meister’s _team_ of lawyers decided to take that track. Both cases were dismissed.
Suits like these are designed to shut the opposition up ( which is rather funny coming from folks who often decry the “censorship” of their own dodgy messages by the so-called orthodoxy). The truth may set you free but it can also land you in court.
I have great sympathy and respect for those legally accosted while battling pseudo-science ( either through Bolen’s follies, Null’s nuisance suits, or Andy’s antics- last, see Mr. Deer’s site) and not just because of my studies/training/work in psychology : my family was embroiled in a suit that challenged a will for *years*- it drags on, it affects people’s health, it disrupts lives. It’s horrible. And we weren’t even *sued* ( both parties attempted to get my father and me to join their side. We declined.)
Publicizing the methods of legal obfuscation should accompany explication of woo advertisement and publicity.
There is something more we can do – why not refer to the MMR scare in future as The Barr-Wakefield Affair?
@ Lancelot Gobbo : and calling the topic of this post, “lowering the Barr”?
While Barr does technically have a point in that the statement as written is not strictly accurate, it’s a minor mistake and the spirit of the statement is certainly justified. A reasonable person who was genuinely concerned about the error would request that a correction be made. And *maybe* consider legal action if Offit refused (which I very much doubt he would have).
The fact that he chose to immediately file a libel suit instead speaks volumes about his real concerns.
When it originally came out, Wakefield’s execrable book “Callous Disregard” was not available in the UK, likely because the publisher was afraid that they, and Wakefield, would be called to account for some of the perversions of truth in that book. Naturally, Wakefield’s supporters screamed “censorship”.
However, now I see that it is available. I wonder, like SC, if the recent changes in the UK are responsible.
Leave Roseanne alone. She had nothing to do with this!!!!!
This blog and comments shouldn’t be about trashing lawyers or solicitors (disclaimer I’m married to a lawyer), but I just cannot resist.
The solicitor Richard Barr is a bottom-feeder. He has been involved in class action lawsuits such as Gulf War Syndrome and now serves on the Naturopathy Board for his constant stream of new clients.
I viewed Brian Deer’s list from the U.K Legal Services Commission of paid “consultants” and “qualifications” (aside from their connections to Wakefield) and the exorbitant fees paid out of public tax dollars. Barr managed to use U.K. Legal Services money for his upcoming lawsuit against vaccine manufacturers. I wonder how many indigent Brits who had legitimate claims of harm due to physician incompetence, severe reactions from medicine or poorly designed medical devices were “turned away” because Barr and the others on the U.K. Legal Services Board, blew the budget on these experts”. Board Members of not-for-profit agencies, public services commissions and charities in the United States have a fiduciary responsible to make certain that public monies and charity contributions are not misused. Board members in the United States have been sued civilly and the more egregious instances of Board member fiscal mismanagement, have been prosecuted criminally. What monitoring system is in place in the U.K. and has the Board been under investigation?
Ah yes, nothing says “we care about the truth and facts” like suing anyone that disagrees with you. What a load of Barr…I mean crap.
Gotta love it when the anti-vaccinists proceed in engaging in the very behavior they constantly accuse us of!
Seems hypocrisy (forgive awful spelling) is still alive and well!
One is definitely led to the conclusion that Richard should be dis-Barred for pursuing such nonsense.
Good for Richard. Let’s see how Offit likes a taste of his own medicine. Making the publishers accountable for a wrong statement is nothing compared to the bullshit heaped on Dr. Wakefield: saying his study hasn’t/couldn’t be replicated (it already has at least 5 times) and the whole characterization of his paper as an “elaborate hoax” is fucking unreal; pure, unadulterated bullshit.
Offit is being threatened for telling the truth. Not all Americans realize this, but truth is not necessarily a defense in British libel cases.
Wakefield, on the other hand, was struck off for fraud and unethical behavior toward children. Even if he had somehow happened on a valid hypothesis, his “experiment” doesn’t prove it. And even if he could prove it, that would not justify mistreating and injuring children.
saying his study hasn’t/couldn’t be replicated by actual scientists
Fixed that for you.
the whole characterization of his paper as an “elaborate hoax” is fucking unreal; pure, unadulterated bullshit.
Yes, the 3 year investigation was so unreal, and the General Medical Council such a bunch of ignorant fools so very unequipped to evaluate the evidence. A mere nothing, all of it. [End sarcasm.]
But why wouldn’t Barr just write a polite, respectful letter to the publisher, asking them to correct the supposed mistake? Why skip that and go straight to “Remove it or I’ll sue!” It’s like holding a gun at a McDonald’s employee because you think they got your order wrong.
When did Paul Offit use legal intimidation to silence a critic? Oh wait – it is Jen times 4- why should it make sense?
BTW, if anyone is wondering just how common it is for a medical practitioner to be struck off, as Wakefield was, here are figures for 2006:
“…over 5,000 cases were dealt with by the GMC in 2006. Of these, 303 resulted in a fitness-to-practise hearing and 54 doctors were struck off….”
So in just a bit more than 1% of the cases that came before the GMC, they found sufficient reason to remove the doctor’s right to practice. Gives some indication of the seriousness with which the Council viewed the evidence of what Wakefield did.
I would have preferred that he expanded the one sentence into a much larger section discussing all the money given, who gave it, who received it, which organizations were involved, etc. That way the information would be out there. Unfortunately given the libel laws it would probably just mean the publisher would open to actions by even more people that were offended, despite their involvement in illegal actions.
Well, jen was able to replicate her post 4x….and back to the same old debunked “Wakefield’s research was replicated” when it clearly wasn’t.
Go hang your hat somewhere else jen, you’re like a fire brigade showing up at a house that’s already burnt to the ground. Wakefield did it to himself by falsifying his research in the name of the almight dollar (or pound, or euro, as the case may be) & he got caught. Getting removed by the GMA isn’t sufficient punishment for what he’s done.
jen: stop deifying Wakefraud. It is sad and pathetic.
There’s no sense to people like Jen – she’s the madwoman in the mall with the “repent” placard: it’s a kind of madness, sadly repetitive, very dull, and only a minor irritant to those she would convert.
Your hero is a fraud, and the fact that his lawyer is suing over one sentence – all too likely to be true – does not exonerate him or make your continued anti-vaccination vomit any less repugnant.
Go back to the mall, stupid madwoman; at least there you might meet someone who agrees with you.
@ Lawrence- re Andy and the almighty dollar ( or pound or euro).
Just to set things straight: Wakefield began his career in the mid-1980’s in the UK ( pound) but moved to Canada ( Canadian dollar) in the late 1980’s. Returning to the UK, (pound) he embarked upon his life’s work and claim to fame ( actually, infamy), i.e. engineering his “project” in the late 1990’s. In the early 2000’s, he moved to the US ( US dollar), where he resides today ( @ wesupportandywakefield.com)- in Texas. I can’t find anything about euros.
What study, jen? Citation, please.
Shills and minions
The “Jen” practice drone seems to have gone off programming. I’ll have the ladies down on C deck retrieve it and run a diagnostic to find out what’s behind that vexing hiccup. Maybe I’ll have them turn down the crazy module a bit as well.
Back to earning your ill-gotten gains,
Lord Draconis Zeneca VH7iL 01000001110″
Glaxxon PharmaCOM Orbital
Jen, Wakefield acted fraudulently and no amount of lalalaicanthearyou will change that. The guy is utterly discredited. He took money to promote a point of view entirely devoid of any corroborating evidence and then falsified evidence to further profit.
And removing or rewording one sentence in a book relating to how he was remunerated (i.e. paid through a legal aid board instead of cash in hand) does not somehow invalidate the entire book. Much though you wish it did.
sharon: “Cultish behaviour”
Change one letter and you’ll get my take on Mr. Barr’s antics here.
More or less the only circumstance in which justification will not be a successful defence in respect of a true statement is a conviction spent under the terms of the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 if mentioned with malice, this was extended to police cautions in 2008 which are treated as spent from the moment they are issued.
@ David N. Andrews M.Ed., C.P.S.E.
That’s that I like about you! If you’ve got it: flaunt it!
List those studies, stating the journal, title, date and authors. Make sure you clarify that they were independent (no involvement from Wakefield, Krigsman and their cronies), that they were actually published (no poster presentations), actually indicated which MMR vaccine was being investigated and has a study group consisting of at least a dozen children (that means no single case studies on adults).
Because, other than the Mady Hornig study that failed replicate Wakefield: the others being flouted are all missing one or more of the required bits.
Jen goes fully automatic:
I’ve gone over at least two of the lists of studies purporting to “replicate” Wakefield’s work; they all fall into one of a few categories:
 Studies that find GI disorders in autistic children but don’t show any connection to measles and/or the MMR vaccine.
 Studies that fail to find any connection between autism and GI disorders (gotta read the whole abstract, folks).
 Studies that find a temporal connection between the MMR and GI disorders but not autism (there are just a few of these that weren’t done by Wakefield and Co.).
 Studies that replicate Wakefield’s results but were done by Wakefield or other people who work with him (i.e. Krigsman).
 Poster presentations or meeting abstracts.
 Letters to the editor.
Jen does provide one piece of truth, however:
I completely agree – the hoax wasn’t that elaborate.
Shills and Minions
Use of (or veiled reference to) the feminine perjorative is to be expected on this little backwater, but is strictly forbidden by Corpus decree 3580.00.2. If one must employ colorful anatomical invective, choose a body part that everyone has. So much more egalitarian and better for Minon morale.
Carry on, stay evil . . .
Lord Draconis Zeneca, VC, iH7L
Forward Mavoon of the Great Fleet, Suzerain of V’tar and Pharmaca Magna of Terra
PharmaCOM Orbital HQ
—————————————— MESSAGE ENDS
My dearest Lord Draconis,*My* Pharmaca Magna,
Oh, he’s just a young one and spirited! You must realise that this *pejorative* has lost much of its anatomical reference ( especially in French). Would you rather he say, “Git”? ( I can assure you that he does. “Tosser”, also.)
On a more *pleasing* more, that was one b#tching, brilliant cocktail party you threw aboard UltraShill’s new yacht. Gin flowed , tongues were loosened, *things happen*, you know the human scenario by now ( some of us may be WASPs, but that doesn’t make us Insectoid!).
I must alert you, my darling, that while *some* of us are perfectly and serenely content, with our Turners and Chanel, there are a *few* grumblers amongst us. They see that someone gets a yacht so they all want yachts. The other guy got a Ferrari, they all want Ferraris. So be forewarned, love.
I remain thankfully, dutifully, and most attractively,
sincerely and irrevocably, devotedly your servant, DW
DW: “@ David N. Andrews M.Ed., C.P.S.E.
That’s that I like about you! If you’ve got it: flaunt it!”
Kiitos; Tack; Takk; TÃ¤nan vÃ¤ga; Thank you 🙂
It might amuse y’all to hear that my Advertising Standards (ASA) complaint about Richard Barr’s legal website was successful.
To go to court over ASA is very hard to win.
To go to court over ASA is very hard to win.