Posts Tagged ‘libel abuse’
Bloggers react as leading quackbuster is threatened with libel over exposé of charlatan cancer claims
I’ve seen some pretty vexatious libel threats over the years, but the abusive message sent to quackbuster Andy Lewis over his measured exposé of the “Burzynski clinic” and its ‘miracle cure’ claims stands out as particularly unpleasant.
I have a lot of respect for Andy’s work and it saddens me that someone would choose to respond to him in this way.
Our dysfunctional libel laws encourage this kind of bullying and urgently need reform. In the meantime, people who make vexatious libel threats in the hope of suppressing legitimate criticism need to learn that this will often have precisely the opposite effect.
Professor David Colquhoun has more background on this story, and comments: “We need a Streisand effect to face down these pathetic bullies. It’s the ‘I am Spartacus’ principle.”
I agree. I am therefore reproducing Andy Lewis’s blog post here in full and would encourage anyone who is concerned about this issue to do the same.
The False Hope of the Burzynski ClinicNovember 21, 2011
It’s a powerful media myth that special American cancer clinics can provide miracle cures for cancer when the NHS cannot.
Yesterday’s Observer contained a full page, heart breaking story of a 4-year old girl, Billie Bainbridge, who has a inoperable and rare form of brain cancer, Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma. The only option for this aggressive cancer on the NHS is radiotherapy which may reduce symptoms for a few months. Two year survival is less than 10%. It is difficult to think of anything more devastating for a young family.
But the family of Billie do not want to give up – quite understandably. And they are trying to raise £200,000 to send Billie to the Burzynski Clinic in Texas that claims success with many forms of cancer. To help in this aim, comedian Peter Kay announced on Channel Four last night that he was holding fund-raising gigs this week to help Billie get the treatment that may save her life. As he said, “I just couldn’t not do it”. Enlisted to help raise the funds in many ways are a group of performers, including Badly Drawn Boy, Michael Bublé, Cheryl Cole, Gorillaz and Radiohead.
The fund raising web site, The Billie Butterfly Fund, describes the family’s hope in the Burzynski clinic. We are told that Billie has already travelled to America for preliminary treatment and that now she “has been accepted for pioneering Antineoplaston Therapy at the Burzynski Clinic in Texas which has been conducting FDA (US Government) clinical trials”.
Antineoplaston therapy specifically targets cancer cells without harming healthy cells. Each patient has a personalised treatment plan determined by medical history and extensive analysis. Typically treatment lasts for 8-12 months.
In order to be ‘accepted into the trial’, the family need £200,000. But there is hope,
Although there is no cure for Billie’s type of brain tumour, the treatment in America has improved survival rates in similar cases to Billie’s. It is conducted under the control of the responsible US Government agency. Most importantly it offers the real prospect of improving Billie’s chances of beating this dreadful disease.
It’s a compelling media story – a dying young girl, an NHS unable or unwilling to respond, generous celebrities and a hugely expensive and pioneering cancer clinic in the United States. But scrape away at the surface story and there is something much darker – and that story needs to be told and myths dissipated.
The Burzynski Clinic is at best described as ‘controversial’. There are many warning signs given out by the clinic that are typical of cancer quackery, and so great caution is required.
Let me list some of my concerns,
- Burzynski is a ‘lone genius’. Great scientific medical cures rarely stem from single individuals. They are the result of collaboration and teams. Such breakthroughs need to be assessed by peers to ensure that the researcher is not mistaken or overstating their case.
- Burzynski is claiming he has found the ‘cause of cancer’ and his antineoplaston therapy is its cure. Cancer is a name given to many different diseases. There is not a single cause and treatments need to be targeted as specific forms. It is a common quack claim that they have found the ‘single cause’ and they have a ‘unique cure’.
- The ‘cure’ – Antineoplastons – which were extracted from urine (yes – its the piss treatment) – has no good independent peer-reviewed RCT evidence suggesting it is effective.
- Consequently, the treatment is not approved by US regulators. However, it is approved if treatment is part of a trial.
- The Burzynski clinic charges hundreds of thousands of dollars for people to enrol themselves in a trial.
- These trials of this ‘new and pioneering treatment’ have been going on for decades – since 1977. No end appears to be in sight.
- The website Quackwatch has raised concerns about the origin of Burzynski’s claimed PhD.
So, there are many reasons to question this treatment and to wonder if it is anything more than the misguided obsession of lone doctor who might best be describes as a maverick.
Many people appear to have had deep concerns about the practices of this clinic. Dr Stanislaw Burzynski has been on trial for cancer fraud. He is not a stranger to the court room. In a trial in 1997, he was acquitted after a hung jury was unable to convict. An anti-health fraud organisation, NCAHF reported that interviews with the juror’s suggested they felt he “was guilty as charged of violating court orders not to distribute his unapproved “Antineoplastons” in interstate commerce”, but that due to the strong emotions of some of his patients, who believed in him, some jury members felt unable to convict, despite the judges warning to ignore such emotions.
Support for Burzynski appears to be very strong amongst some of his patients. But as NCAHF say, “Trial by placard waving emotion is a form of mob rule.” Burzynski, his supporters and the media are able to cherry pick those cases that appear to have done well with his treatments. Living patients can be strong advocates.
But those who die are silent. Earlier this month, an Irish newspaper reported the tragic story of Zoe Lehane-lavarde who also had a media campaign running to raise money for treatment at the Burzynski Clinic. The report says that Zoe ‘responded well to treatment’ at the clinic. She died, aged 18 months, a few weeks ago.
The case reports that are relied upon to show successful treatment are by their very nature one sided. They ignore the voices of the failures. That is why properly controlled trials are so important, independently peer reviewed. They are sadly lacking with this therapy. We cannot know if the ‘successes’ are small or large in number, or if the successes are due to the new treatment or some other factor. Cancer affects people in many ways. Some live for many years despite many others dying quickly.
Dr Stanislaw Burzynski faces more problems. It appears that the Texas State Medical Board are holding a hearing next April to revoke his medical license. The response from his supporters is huge with campaigns to write letters to Governer Rick Perry. There has also been a movie made in order to support him as he goes on trial – Burzynski the Movie – which you can buy or rent – yes buy or rent – on Amazon, Netflix or Lovefilm. I hope none of the money from his patients has been used to make such propaganda.
I fully anticipate getting lots of comments from his supporters here. Do a twitter search for #burzynski to see the passion. It also appears that threatening letters are being sent out (text here) to bloggers who question his treatment. That is not the action of someone who seeks the truth but of someone who wants to silence debate. Such attempts to silence cannot be seen to be in the best interests of patients but look more like the attempts to protect commercial interests.
The Observer should not have published an article that was so uncritical of such a questionable treatment. (You can write to the readers’ editor at firstname.lastname@example.org). Such articles will encourage others to go down this misguided path. You may argue that such a treatment gives the family hope, even if it is not effective. It may do. But it looks as if this will be a false hope – and false hopes rob people of real choices. The Bainbridge family are in the grip of utter tragedy as the mother is also suffering from cancer. There are undoubtedly many ways that £200,000 could help them, but putting a little girl through dubious, risky and unpleasant treatment, that is exceedingly unlikely to help, is not one of them.
The treatment is not without its consequences. The article in the Observer describes what is going on,
Billie has already started the clinical trial. She went to Texas for a month, six weeks ago. She was able to come back and bring the treatment with her. She has a backpack with the treatment in it and a Hickman line going into her chest which administers this liquid every four hours. She has not been eating since she has been on the treatment so she also has to be fed through a tube – milkshakes and protein drinks.
False hope takes away opportunities for families to be together and to prepare for the future, no matter how desperately sad that is. It may make the lives of those treated more unpleasant and scary. (Antineoplaston therapy is not without dangerous side-effects). It exploits the goodwill of others and enriches those that are either deluded, misguided or fraudulent. It may leave a tragedy-struck family in financial ruin afterwards. Giving false hope may be more about appeasing the guilt and helplessness of ourselves rather than an act of kindness to the sick.
The Observer article talks about how Billie’s uncle has had his ‘cynicism melted away’ by the generous acts of people like Peter Kay. It appears to me that the success of the Burzynski clinic does not depend so much on published robust evidence (he has had decades to produce this) but on human kindness and goodwill. The blogger Orac describes how the Burzinski clinic has been relying on “harnessing the generosity of strangers” for years.
Orac sums it up,
The bottom line is that Dr. Burzynski is not a miracle worker. He is not a doctor who sees something that mainstream science has not and who therefore has a cure for many cancers that mainstream medicine scoffs at. He is not a bold visionary. Rather, he appears to be a man pursuing pseudoscience.
I understand how Peter Kay must feel when he says “I just couldn’t not do it”. We are compelled to help in such tragic circumstances. But I fear that in this case, such help will do more harm than good as others are drawn down this path. As always, people take claims on face value – a clinic that claims to help when others won’t or can’t. There are places that celebrities can go to to help ensure the science is sound, such as the charity Sense About Science, who welcome enquiries of this sort from people being asked to endorse claims.
Peter Kay is right to raise money for this family. And good luck to him. But it would be a dreadful wrong for this money to end up in the hands of someone whose actions cannot be distinguished from mere exploitation of the desperate. That money could make a big difference to this family. It could allow both mother and daughter to be looked after in comfort, without worrying about mortgages or jobs. It will allow them to be together. It will not perform miracles. And nor will it make the pain go away. But such a simple gift will indeed be an act against cynicism and false hope.
From the misguided threats against Labour activist Sally Bercow by the right-wing lobby group Migration Watch, to the renewed attacks on cardiologist Peter Wilmshurst by the controversial multinational NMT Medical, it’s clear that the abuses of our libel law will continue until some robust reforms are implemented.
As is perhaps to be expected given the money involved, the libel industry has been running a classic lobbying campaign against moves for reform. In the process they have enlisted the help of the notorious former speaker of the House of Commons, Michael Martin, who recently found his way into the Lords. I think this says something about the character of these people.
It seems to me that the libel industry could very easily win this unless pressure is maintained on the new government to do the right thing.
I’m pleased to join today’s mass-blog in urgent support of the libel reform campaign:
This week is the first anniversary of the report Free Speech is Not for Sale, which highlighted the oppressive nature of English libel law. In short, the law is extremely hostile to writers, while being unreasonably friendly towards powerful corporations and individuals who want to silence critics.
The English libel law is particularly dangerous for bloggers, who are generally not backed by publishers, and who can end up being sued in London regardless of where the blog was posted. The internet allows bloggers to reach a global audience, but it also allows the High Court in London to have a global reach.
You can read more about the peculiar and grossly unfair nature of English libel law at the website of the Libel Reform Campaign. You will see that the campaign is not calling for the removal of libel law, but for a libel law that is fair and which would allow writers a reasonable opportunity to express their opinion and then defend it.
The good news is that the British Government has made a commitment to draft a bill that will reform libel, but it is essential that bloggers and their readers send a strong signal to politicians so that they follow through on this promise. You can do this by joining me and over 50,000 others who have signed the libel reform petition at
Remember, you can sign the petition whatever your nationality and wherever you live. Indeed, signatories from overseas remind British politicians that the English libel law is out of step with the rest of the free world.
If you have already signed the petition, then please encourage friends, family and colleagues to sign up. Moreover, if you have your own blog, you can join hundreds of other bloggers by posting this blog on your own site. There is a real chance that bloggers could help change the most censorious libel law in the democratic world.
We must speak out to defend free speech. Please sign the petition for libel reform at
While accident and emergency services face cuts,
frivolous libel cases receive a generous subsidy
The endemic abuse of the UK’s dysfunctional libel system to suppress inconvenient scientific evidence is now widely understood to be a threat to public health.
The enormous fees that libel lawyers are able to charge mean that a defendant can face crippling, unrecoverable costs even if they win their case. The situation is now so bad that the media is routinely exercising self-consorship over contentious public health issues rather than face the risk of legal action.
But there is another issue here, which has also has serious implications for public welfare, and which merits more scrutiny. While the claimant and defendant in a libel case have to foot the bill for their respective lawyer’s legal fees (with the majority of the costs typically falling on whoever loses the case), there are many other costs involved in a case – from the judge’s salary to the cost of heating and lighting the courtroom – that they never have to worry about.
These “invisible” costs are generously met by the UK state, using money from taxpayers that many of us might prefer to be put towards a more worthy cause – saving our local accident and emergency unit from closure, reducing class sizes in an inner city school, providing better equipment for our armed forces, or simply returning the money to taxpayers so they can decide for themselves how to spend it.
A typical salary for a High Court judge is in the region of £172,000. If the judge works for five days a week, 46 weeks of the year, this would equate to a rate of more than £740 per day. The judge is supported, in turn, by a whole team of clerks and other administrative staff. The court room itself must be kept warm, clean, and in good repair. Meticulous records must be kept of the court proceedings, with those records being filed and maintained for many years afterwards.
Without all of these “invisible” costs being met, there would simply be no lucrative court case for libel firms like Carter Ruck and Schillings to cash in on. So what’s actually happening here is that the UK taxpayer is indirectly subsidising the libel industry.
So what kind of cases are we subsidising? Well there’s the tennis player who sued the Daily Telegraph (unsuccessfully) for calling him the “world’s worst tennis pro”. There’s the Icelandic professor who got sued in the UK courts over a comment posted on the website of the University of Iceland. There’s the Ukrainian businessman who sued a Ukrainian news website in the UK courts over comments made on that website, in Ukrainian. There’s the now-notorious failed libel action by the British Chiropractic Association against science writer Simon Singh over his criticism of their scientific claims. There’s the two-year (and also famously unsuccessful) libel case by the blogger Joanna Kaschke against another blogger, Dave Osler, which was thrown out after two years on the basis that there was actually no case to answer. There’s the defamation case brought by John Bridle against the Health and Safety Executive, over comments allegedly made over the phone by an HSE inspector – the case was also thrown out (after much deliberation), with the court ruling that Bridle had been pursuing a “vendetta” against the HSE.
On top of the considerable costs imposed on the defendant, all of these cases required a hefty subsidy from the taxpayer in the form of court staff time and other administrative expenses – while (in most cases) the claimant’s law firm raked in the profits. It’s difficult to put a precise figure on how much money we are wasting each year on frivolous or trivial defamation cases like these – but it’s easy to think of better ways that this cash could be used.
“We would respectfully adopt what Judge Easterbrook, now Chief Judge of the US Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, said in a libel action over a scientific controversy, Underwager v Salter 22 Fed. 3d 730 (1994):
“[Plaintiffs] cannot, by simply filing suit and crying ‘character assassination!’, silence those who hold divergent views, no matter how adverse those views may be to plaintiffs’ interests. Scientific controversies must be settled by the methods of science rather than by the methods of litigation. … More papers, more discussion, better data, and more satisfactory models – not larger awards of damages – mark the path towards superior understanding of the world around us.” “
If they’re this repressive in opposition, what will they be like in government?
From The Independent
The BBC has shelved a Panorama documentary about the business affairs of the Tory billionaire Lord Ashcroft, because of a threat of legal action.
The Corporation has received what one insider described as “several very heavy letters” from Lord Ashcroft’s lawyers. There is now little or no prospect of the investigation being broadcast before the general election, if it goes out at all.
The hold-up will delight David Cameron’s campaign team, who had been trying to pressure the BBC into delaying the programme until after the general election. But sources inside the Corporation firmly deny that political pressure played a part in keeping the programme off the air, attributing the delay solely to the risk of legal action.
The Tories are anxious to suppress more publicity about Lord Ashcroft’s affairs after the outcry earlier this month when the Tory billionaire belatedly revealed that he is not domiciled in the UK for tax purposes, and so pays no tax on his huge overseas assets.
England’s libel laws are unjust, against the public interest and internationally criticised – there is urgent need for reform.
Freedom to criticise and question, in strong terms and without malice, is the cornerstone of argument and debate, whether in scholarly journals, on websites, in newspapers or elsewhere. Our current libel laws inhibit debate and stifle free expression. They discourage writers from tackling important subjects and thereby deny us the right to read about them.
The law is so biased towards claimants and so hostile to writers that London has become known as the libel capital of the world. The rich and powerful bring cases to London on the flimsiest grounds (libel tourism), because they know that 90% of cases are won by claimants. Libel laws intended to protect individual reputation are being exploited to suppress fair comment and criticism.
The cost of a libel trial is often in excess of £1 million and 140 times more expensive than libel cases in mainland Europe; publishers (and individual journalists, authors, academics, performers and blog-writers) cannot risk such extortionate costs, which means that they are forced to back down, withdraw and apologise for material they believe is true, fair and important to the public.
The English PEN/Index on Censorship report has shown that there is an urgent need to amend the law to provide a stronger, wider and more accessible public interest defence. Sense About Science has shown that the threat of libel action leads to self-censorship in scientific and medical writing.
We the undersigned, in England and beyond, urge politicians to support a bill for major reforms of the English libel laws now, in the interests of fairness, the public interest and free speech.
The “One Show” had an excellent feature last night on the Libel Reform campaign, with a truly illuminating contribution (3 mins 55) from Carter-Ruck’s Nigel Tait.
Asked by Mitch Benn why his firm charged such astronomical fees, Tait cited several critical factors, including the high cost of central London office space, and the fact that “we have to write long and expensive letters”.
It struck me that these letters must be very, very, very long indeed – and the postage quite staggeringly costly – to necessitate charging £500 an hour to send them. Poor Nigel Tait must have to write hundreds of thousands of words each time, on dozens of pages of extremely heavy paper.
And then I had an idea. Back in October, the “Twittersphere” mobilised en masse to destroy Carter-Ruck’s Trafigura super-injunction – maybe now it’s time to lend them a hand (it is nearly Christmas, after all). If every person who Tweeted about #Trafigura were to send Carter-Ruck a little book of six First Class postage stamps, maybe this would help to offset some of the humungous expense of all these legal letters that they keep having to write.
So please spare a thought for the libel lawyers this Christmas! Carter-Ruck’s address is 6, St Andrews Street, London EC4A 3EA, and you can buy stamps online here, or at most newsagents.