Public health and free speech

When should free expression be limited for the public good?

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) today expands its remit to cover use of websites.

Until now misleading advertisers could escape sanction if they used their own webpage for their claims and not, say, a billboard poster or a newspaper advert. Already those opposed to the making of misleading claims by alternative health practitioners -- the new Nightingale Collaboration, Le Canard Noir and Ministry of Truth, as well as many others -- are poised to launch complaints to stop internet-based quackery and its promotion of bogus treatments for which there is not a jot of evidence.

This expansion of the ASA's remit, announced last September, will bring welcome consistency to what was a muddled and potentially dangerous situation for consumers. However, the expansion also raises the general question as to what is the correct relationship between free speech and public health.

The successful defence by Simon Singh of the misconceived and illiberal libel claim brought by the now discredited British Chiropractic Association emphasised that it is important that those making claims for the efficacy of certain remedies should be open to criticism. A spate of similar libel claims over the period 2008-10 involving scientists and science writers triggered the popular and influential Keep Libel Out Of Science campaign by Sense About Science (of which I am on the advisory board). There is an overwhelming public interest in scientists and science writers being uninhibited in being able to question and expose shoddy claims. One hopes this is reflected in the impending draft libel reform bill.

Accordingly, the general principle appears to be that those who promote treatments should be regulated in what they can say, while those who criticise promotions of treatments should always be free from any legal restraints. The overall public interest is thereby served by certain "speech acts" being prohibited whilst others are protected.

However, this general principle does have unwelcome possible implications. There are individuals whose attacks on MMR vaccines or antiviral treatments for HIV seem to border on the criminally irresponsible, almost to the point of facilitating manslaughter. Surely there must be some legal remedy to prevent such dangerous "speech-acts" when those heeding the attacks may well die? Are these attacks not the modern equivalent of Oliver Wendell Holmes's old roasted chestnut of falsely shouting fire in a crowded theatre? Shouldn't "anti-vaxers" and "HIV denialists" be banned?

The problem here lies partly in rhetoric. The bare assertion of the general right to free speech to criticise any purported treatments can easily be exploited by the knave and the fool. Perhaps their abuse of free speech is a price worth paying for a liberal society; or perhaps there really should be some sort of a prohibition on their bad "speech acts" which does not affect good "speech acts".

Nonetheless, knaves and fools will no longer be able to make misleading advertising claims on their websites which they cannot in posters and newspaper adverts. This is surely a victory for the public interest over the misuse of advertising space by quacks and others.

But it remains less clear how laws and rules should, if at all, prevent the misuse of free expression in undermining highly-beneficial treatments. In these cases, is free speech more important than public health?

 

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and author of the Jack of Kent blog.

His legal journalism has included popularising the Simon Singh libel case and discrediting the Julian Assange myths about his extradition case.  His uncovering of the Nightjack email hack by the Times was described as "masterly analysis" by Lord Justice Leveson.

David is also a solicitor and was successful in the "Twitterjoketrial" appeal at the High Court.

(Nothing on this blog constitutes legal advice.)

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In focusing on the famous few, we risk doing a disservice to all victims of child sexual abuse

There is a danger that we make it harder, not easier, for victims to come forward in future. 

Back in the 1970s when relations between journalists and police were somewhat different to today a simple ritual would be carried out around the country at various times throughout the week.

Reporters, eager for information for their regional newspaper, would take a trip to the local station and there would be met by a desk sergeant who would helpfully skim through details in the crime Incident Book.

Among the entries about petty thefts, burglaries and road accidents there would occasionally be a reference to an allegation of incest. And at this point the sergeant and journalist might well screw-up their faces, shake their heads and swiftly move on to the next log. The subject was basically taboo, seen as something ‘a bit mucky,’ not what was wanted in a family newspaper.

And that’s really the way things stayed until 1986 when ChildLine was set up by Dame Esther Rantzen in the wake of a BBC programme about child abuse. For the first time children felt able to speak out about being sexually assaulted by the very adults whose role in life was to protect them.

And for the first time the picture became clear about what incest really meant in many cases. It wasn’t simply a low level crime to be swept under the carpet in case it scratched people’s sensitivities. It frequently involved children being abused by members of their close family, repeatedly, over many years.

Slowly but surely as the years rolled on the NSPCC continued to press the message about the prevalence of child sexual abuse, while encouraging victims to come forward. During this time the corrosive effects of this most insidious crime have been painfully detailed by many of those whose lives have been derailed by it. And of course the details of the hundreds of opportunistic sexual assaults committed by Jimmy Savile have been indelibly branded onto the nation’s consciousness.

It’s been a long road - particularly for those who were raped or otherwise abused as children and are now well into their later years - to bring society around to accepting that this is not to be treated as a dark secret that we really don’t want to expose to daylight. Many of those who called our helpline during the early days of the Savile investigation had never told anyone about the traumatic events of their childhoods despite the fact they had reached retirement age.

So, having buried the taboo, we seem to be in danger of giving it the kiss of life with the way some cases of alleged abuse are now being perceived.

It’s quite right that all claims of sexual assault should be investigated, tested and, where there is a case, pursued through the judicial system. No one is above the law, whether a ‘celebrity’ or a lord.

But we seem to have lost a sense of perspective when it comes to these crimes with vast resources being allocated to a handful of cases while many thousands of reported incidents are virtually on hold.

The police should never have to apologise for investigating crimes and following leads. However, if allegations are false or cannot be substantiated they should say so. This would be a strength not a weakness.

It is, of course, difficult that in many of the high-profile cases of recent times the identities of those under investigation have not been officially released by the police but have come to light through other means. Yet we have to deal with the world as it is not as we wish it would be and once names are common knowledge the results of the investigations centring on them should be made public.

When it emerges that someone in the public eye is being investigated for historical child abuse it obviously stirs the interest of the media whose appetite can be insatiable. This puts pressure on the police who don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past by allowing offenders to slip through their hands.  And so there is a danger, as has been seen in recent cases, that officers lack confidence in declaring there is a lack of evidence or the allegations are not true. 

The disproportionate weight of media attention given to say, Sir Edward Heath, as opposed to the Bradford grooming gang sentenced this week, shows there is a danger the pendulum is swinging too far the other way. This threatens the painstaking work invested in ensuring the public and our institutions recognise child abuse as a very real danger. 

Whilst high profile cases have helped the cause there is now a real risk that the all-encompassing focus on them does both victims of abuse and those advocating on their behalf a fundamental disservice.

As the public watches high -profile cases collapsing amidst a media fanfare genuine convictions made across the country week in week out go virtually unannounced. If this trend continues they may start to believe that child sexual abuse isn’t the prolific problem we know it to be.

So, while detectives peer into the mists of time, searching for long lost clues, we have to face the unpalatable possibility that offences being committed today will in turn become historical investigations because there is not the manpower to deal with them right now.

Operation Midland, which was set-up to check claims that boys were abused in the 1970s and 80s by a high-level group of paedophiles including politicians, military figures and members of law enforcement agencies, has had up to 40 detectives assigned to it and a similar investigation. Admittedly some of these were murder and major crimes officers but that’s still a large contingent.

In fact if such squads were formed for every historical case the Metropolitan Police would be overwhelmed as last year alone it received reports from nearly 1100 adults – many of them well past retirement age –that they were sexually assaulted when children.

So, now the Goddard Inquiry is in full swing, taking evidence about allegations of child sex crimes involving ‘well known people’ as well as institutional abuse, how do we ensure we don’t fail today’s victims?

If they start to think their stories are going to be diminished by the continuing furore over how some senior public figures have been treated by the police they will stay silent. Therefore we have to continue to encourage them to come forward, to give them the confidence of knowing they will be listened to.

If we don’t we will find ourselves back in those incestuous days where people conspired to say and do nothing to prevent child abuse.

Peter Wanless is Chief Executive of the NSPCC.