Saturday, September 22, 2012

How timidity over liability allows villains to flourish

On BMJ Group blogs, Richard Smith, the former editor of the BMJ, reflects on the decision of the BMJ not to publish a recent blog post for fear that the journal will be sued.  Some excerpts:

"But I want to reflect on the question of whether the journal is too sensitive about the threat of a libel action. The question arises because the journal wants to change a blog I’ve written for fear of libel, and I think that the editors are being overcautious."

"There is no doubt that the consequences of a libel action can be disastrous for a journal. An action against a journal can absorb huge amounts of time of the editors and their lawyers. With a libel case the onus is on the defendants to prove that what they have published is true, which may not be easy even when it is true. The lawyers are of course paid for their time, and it isn’t difficult to run up legal fees in the tens of thousands. If an action against a journal is successful, then the damages might be in millions. Even if the case is won the journal may not be able to get its costs back. In short, a successful libel action could destroy a journal."

"Editors thus need to be very careful to avoid publishing something that could lead to a libel action. Caution is appropriate. Just as surgeons who have experienced a death during an operation may be very careful, perhaps even too careful, when doing that operation again so editors can be scarred by the experience of a libel case."

 "I think that the BMJ is being too cautious. I can’t pretend that the world will be a more wicked or even a different place if my blog is not published, but perhaps in the longer term and cumulatively the BMJ will allow villains to flourish in medicine by being too cautious."

Read the entire blog post here.

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