A victory for scientific inquiry

Simon Singh wins libel appeal against the British Chiropractic Association.

I've just heard the fantastic news that Simon Singh has won his libel appeal against the British Chiropractic Association. He now has the right to rely on the defence of fair comment.

Singh, who has contributed to the NS in the past, was sued by the BCA after he wrote a piece for the Guardian describing the association's claim that spinal manipulation could be used to treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding conditions as "bogus".

Remarkably, Mr Justice Eady ruled that the comments were factual, not opinion -- meaning Singh could not use the defence of fair comment.

Eady also ruled that the use of the word "bogus" implied not merely that the BCA supported ineffective treatments, but that it had been deliberately deceptive.

This left Singh with the Sisyphean task of proving a point he'd never intended to make: that the BCA had been consciously dishonest.

But today, the Appeal Court (consisting of the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Judge, the Master of the Rolls, Lord Neuberger, and Lord Justice Sedley) ruled that Eady had "erred in his approach", and granted Singh the right to use the defence of fair comment in the primary lawsuit. He now has a far better chance of winning the case.

But as the Lib Dem MP Evan Harris pointed out today, it is absurd that Singh has had to spend £200,000 and two years of his life just to reach this point. The need to reform Britain's draconian libel laws, which discourage free inquiry and punish original journalism, remains as urgent as ever.

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George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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How austere will Philip Hammond be?

The Chancellor must choose between softening or abandoning George Osborne's approach in his Autumn Statement. 

After becoming Chancellor, Philip Hammond was swift to confirm that George Osborne's budget surplus target would be abandoned. The move was hailed by some as the beginning of a new era of fiscal policy - but it was more modest than it appeared. Rather than a statement of principle, the abandonment of the 2019-20 target was merely an acceptance of reality. In the absence of additional spending cuts or tax rises, it would inevitably be missed (as Osborne himself recognised following the EU referendum). The decision did not represent, as some suggested, "the end of austerity".

Ahead of his first Autumn Statement on 23 November, the defining choice facing Hammond is whether to make a more radical break. As a new Resolution Foundation report notes, the Chancellor could either delay the surplus target (the conservative option) or embrace an alternative goal. Were he to seek a current budget suplus, rather than an overall one (as Labour pledged at the last general election), Hammond would avoid the need for further austerity and give himself up to £17bn of headroom. This would allow him to borrow for investment and to provide support for the "just managing" families (as Theresa May calls them) who will be squeezed by the continuing benefits freeze.

Alternatively, should Hammond merely delay Osborne's surplus target by a year (to 2020-21), he would be forced to impose an additional £9bn of tax rises or spending cuts. Were he to reject any further fiscal tightening, a surplus would not be achieved until 2023-24 - too late to be politically relevant. 

The most logical option, as the Resolution Foundation concludes, is for Hammond to target a current surplus. But since entering office, both he and May have emphasised their continuing commitment to fiscal conservatism ("He talks about austerity – I call it living within our means," the latter told Jeremy Corbyn at her first PMQs). For Hammond to abandon the goal of the UK's first budget surplus since 2001-02 would be a defining moment. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.