Wednesday, November 11, 2009

An absence of malice

Our new writer, Simon Perry, has his first column, The Skeptic, in the Mercury today and turns his attention to a local shop which claims that if you give it £35 and a strand of hair, it will tell you what you are allergic to.

Simon calls himself a skeptic. What does that mean? Well, a dictionary definition looks something like this:

Skep -tic

1. a person who questions the validity or authenticity of something purporting to be factual.
2. a person who maintains a doubting attitude, as toward values, plans, statements, or the character of others.

I would say it was someone who would doubt a claim until they saw conclusive evidence to support the claim.

[Before you write and complain, I know that in this country we spell the word with a 'c', as in sceptic, but Simon prefers the American spelling (with a 'k') because it avoids confusion with 'cynic', which is, of course, a completely different kettle of fish.]

I like the way Simon thinks. His doubting and questioning is an extension to much of the work that we have to do as a newspaper and it's great to find someone else with the inclination and time to look into claims made in our local area.

It is a few weeks now since I first asked him to write for the Mercury and much of the time that has elapsed has been spent with us checking out Simon's writing with the lawyers. Here's how our news editor, Mark Charlton, put it on Twitter last night: 'You are a legal fXXking nightmare. But welcome 2 journalism.'

The problem for us is the libel law. It's not an easy law to deal with for newspapers because it puts all the onus on the newspaper to prove what it says is true. You might think that is entirely the right way round on the grounds that we ought only to print what we know is true, but that's the issue: sometimes you know something is true, but you can't prove it. We are pretty sure that the claims made in Simon's first column are both true and provable - it will be interesting to see how much more difficult that becomes with some of the topics he intends to cover over the coming months!

The other question that came up was the motives behind Simon's articles. The lawyers wanted to know that he was not driven by malice. Of course, he's not. As Simon puts it: An inquiring mind, an interest in the truth and an urge to prevent people being ripped off are my only motivations.

Why does that matter? Because if, at some point, we make a mistake - Simon gets something wrong and we don't spot it - we may have to rely on a defence against libel other than one which simply says that we got it right. There are circumstances where, even when we are wrong, we can claim protection against a libel suit. However, any such defence would melt away if it could be shown that either Simon or the newspaper acted maliciously.

That's not going to happen.

If you like what you read, you might also be interested in Simon's blog, Adventures in Nonsense, or perhaps turn out to one of the Skeptics in the Pub meetings in Leicester: next Tuesday (Nov 17th) sees Professor Chris French discussing the Psychology of Alien Contact and Abduction!