Libel is not Funny

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.

Big Libel Gig

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…!”.

Big Libel Gig - Robin Ince comperes

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.

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11 Responses to Libel is not Funny

  1. Henry Gee says:

    I’d been following this on Twitter. It sounds like a great occasion. I hope it raised £££ towards the legal costs of those involved. It reminds me of the Secret Policeman’s Ball for Amnesty – perhaps it will achieve the same cult status.

  2. Stephen Curry says:

    It was a truly great night and I hope it has raised a lot of money – which goes to the reform campaign, not to individuals fighting libel suits.
    I hadn’t thought to compare it to Amnesty’s events (too tired last night when I was writing this – not much more awake this morning). However, I hope the success of the reform campaign will make this event obsolete. There will, I’m sure, be plenty of other issues to bring campaigners and comedians together.

  3. Stephen Curry says:

    Just found this great 5 min synopsis of the Simon Singh Libel case on YouTube – it’s an IgniteDublin presentation by scientist, Aoife McLysaght (for the gaelically-challenged, that’s pronounced ‘Ee-fa’).

  4. Norman Copeland says:

    A worthy gathering…
    Lol… It’s been a while since I’ve seen roy ”chubby” brown perform… Don’t suppose I’ll be seeing him at camden lock comedy club…
    Still, I bet the beer was worth the pence…

  5. Stephen Curry says:

    Thanks for the comment Norman. Roy ‘Chubby’ Brown’s material is not to my taste.
    Could I ask you not to leave URL calling cards in comments unless they are directly relevant to what you are trying to say? You can include any personal URLs in your Nature Network profile.

  6. Heather Etchevers says:

    Good for Ben for being serious for a while, good for you for going (I’d have loved to!) and good for the rest of the participants for making it _also_ a worthwhile, entertaining evening. I hope like you, that the comedians will apply their skills to other causes because this one will soon be moot. Great post.

  7. Stephen Curry says:

    Ta Heather. I can’t take much credit for just going, though I did win some points from my kids for taking them along.

  8. Austin Elliott says:

    BTW, Matthias Rath didn’t just sue Ben Goldacre in Britain. He also filed libel suits against, it seems, practically everyone in South Africa that had ever said anything about him. As far as I recall this included Zackie Achmat’s Treatment Action Campaign, medical people, “mainstream” health websites, a Minister in the ANC Govt, the South African Press Association etc etc. See, for instance, “here.”:

  9. Stephen Curry says:

    I think the behaviour of the Rath Foundation (as exemplified by the Goldacre case and the cases mentioned in your link, Austin) shows exactly why it is necessary to change the libel law, here and elsewhere.
    It is simply too easy for powerful corporations to use their financial muscle to try to dis-arm their critics.

  10. Norman Copeland says:

    I guess the sociological connatations of slander and libel in a capitalistic community show us that on the eve of space travel to other planets our attitude to each other is at a worrying standard, I wonder what the sort of temperment is leveling at in a communist society?
    Is heaven confined to this planet, and thus each planet has it’s own heaven according to the water evaporation that has occured on it, will we be commuist in space and ta ta slander?…
    ouuhhh Gaaauwddd…
    I think I need to go to the toilet…

  11. Pingback: Libel Reform – smells like victory | Reciprocal Space

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