Sunday evening saw the Curry clan heading into central London for the Big Libel Gig in support of the ongoing campaign for Libel Reform. There was a great line-up of comedy talent in prospect, inter-mixed with more serious contributions about the issue of reform from the likes of journalist Nick Cohen, cardiologist Peter Wilmshurst (himself the defendant in a current action), Evan Harris MP (and some of his cross-party chums) and Simon Singh himself.
Let there be no mistake, the big draw for us were the comedians who had agreed to perform, including Dara O’Briain, Ed Byrne, Marcus Brigstocke, Tim Minchin, Shappi Khorsandi and Robin Ince (brain-father of the Gig).
And we were not disappointed. A packed house cheered as Robin Ince, our breathless and hard-working compere for the night, walked onto the stage. He set things going and set the intellectual tone by reflecting on Descartes’ “I think therefore I am” pronouncement and then wondering aloud about all the people “who don’t think and yet still are…!”.
Ince did a great job of joining up the diverse acts. He’s a fantastic comedian himself but one who takes his science seriously (I was delighted to learn that he’s just been given a telescope for his birthday).
There was a wonderful succession of great performers. I particularly enjoyed Brigstocke’s angry rant about the British Gyrocoptic Chiropodists (“or whatever they’re called”). I laughed at that almost as much as the rest of my family did at his anti-iPhone-user diatribe (all the while casting sidelong glances at me).
Another moment of sheer genius was Ariane Sherine’s epically quirky ballad The Simon Singh Song, which even had me singing along (a cue for yet more sidelong disapproving looks).
And then, late into the evening, onto the stage came Ben Goldacre. I’ve seen him talk a couple of times before. He does a good line in sciencey quippery and, sure enough, started out apologising because he was a nerd and not a comedian. That got a round of tittering and gentle applause but then he started to speak. Seriously.
He talked about his own libel case after he had been sued by Matthias Rath for criticising Rath’s peddling of vitamin pills as a cure for AIDS. He told us about Rath’s newspaper adverts in South Africa, denigrating anti-retroviral therapy and promoting vitamin supplements as a superior alternative. He told us about how Rath’s anti-antiretroviral views chimed with those of the then president, Thabo Mbeki. He told us about the gay campaigner, Zackie Achmet, who fought his government to make antiretroviral therapy available to every HIV-positive person in South Africa, who refused this therapy himself (despite the pleas of Nelson Mandela) until the government reversed its appalling and reckless policy. He told us about Rath’s former employee, Anthony Brink, who filed a complaint against Achmat with the International Criminal Court at The Hague, accusing him of genocide for campaigning to allow South Africans access to antiretroviral drugs. The paperwork submitted in support of the accusation was utterly shocking.
But don’t take my word for it. Read the chapter from Goldacre’s book (available as a free pdf download). It’s an astonishing, revolting story of what some people will do to silence their critics. Rath didn’t care for Goldacre’s criticism of his vitamin sales in South Africa and so he sued for libel. Fortunately, Rath eventually lost.
Unlike the comedians before him, Goldacre failed completely to bring the house down. But on this topic he brought it to an absolute standstill. We’d had a good laugh earlier at the expense of chiropractic and homeopathic nutcases. But this was deadly serious. The point was, the point is: libel can be seriously deadly.
After the hush, Dara O’Briain, the last act of the night bounded onto the stage. He paid homage to Goldacre’s spot, deftly thanking him for cleansing the audience’s palate between comedy courses and then, consummate professional that he is, launched into a blisteringly funny set — the most hilarious of the night — that bounced from infants bleating about their back problems to accounts of his and his wife’s recent experiences at NCT ante-natal classes. He had the crowd aching with laughter and ensured that the night ended on a high.
Show over, we smiled and buzzed our way down the stairs and out into the surprisingly mild West-End night. But behind the smiles, there was something more serious.
If you haven’t done so already, please go to the libel reform website and show your support.