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Wednesday, 14 July 2010

The Integrity and Honesty of @gillianmckeith

Let me introduce you to @gillianmckeith.

This is a Twitter account in the name of Gillian McKeith.

There is no doubt that it is the official Twitter account of Ms McKeith. For example, until earlier today her official website linked to it. And so did her official YouTube account.

So, as I said, there can be no doubt that @gillianmckeith is the official Twitter account of Ms McKeith.


Less clear, however, is who sends tweets from that Twitter account.

The obvious candidate would be Ms McKeith. Many of the tweets are in the first person and refer to personal and family matters.

But there may be others who have control and conduct of her account from time to time.

In any case, it would be safe to assume that whoever it is, they tweet on behalf of Ms McKeith.

As I cannot - with certainty - state who tweets as @gillianmckeith then I will refer to that person simply as "@gillianmckeith" - that is the person who is tweeting as Ms McKeith, even if Ms McKeith is not immediately aware of the tweets herself.


But why does this matter?

Well, the conduct of the @gillianmckeith account may be raising questions as to the integrity and honesty of Ms McKeith herself.

It can be demonstrated (in now deleted tweets) that @gillianmckeith accused Dr Ben Goldacre of publishing lies in his book Bad Science.

Dr Goldacre may be many things, but there is no question as to his integrity and honesty.

An accusation of dishonesty against Dr Goldacre, who emphasises an evidence-based and transparent approach, is a fairly serious allegation.

To my mind, Dr Goldacre was libelled by that tweet of @gillianmckeith.

And unless she can justify it, or defend it as a fair comment, he could proceed to sue the author of that statement.

(It is to his credit that he says that all he would want is a tweet saying that there are no lies in Bad Science.)


So the official Twitter account of Ms McKeith accuses Dr Goldacre of publishing lies.

However, it cannot be shown that the tweets were those of Ms McKeith directly but they were at least sent by someone on her behalf. There certainly was no subsequent apology for the libel; instead the tweets were just deleted.

By raising the issue of the integrity and honesty of Dr Goldacre, it is arguable that the author of the accusation also implicitly raised the issue of the integrity and honesty of Ms McKeith.


This is important for what happens next.

Earlier today, the @gillianmckeith account published a sequence of tweets about her doctorate. These tweets were written in the third person.

However, these tweets were quickly deleted.


And then a remarkable tweet appeared, which has still not been deleted.

It said: "Do you actually believe this is real twitter site for the GM?"

Again, this tweet was in the third person (though the addition of the definite article suggests rather breathtaking egotism).

The only natural and ordinary meaning of this tweet was to make the reader think that @gillianmckeith was not the official Twitter account for Ms McKeith.

The tweet was at best misleading.


It was swiftly pointed out to @gillianmckeith that the official website of Ms McKeith contained a link to the Twitter account.

And what happened next was astonishing and will be remembered by all those lucky enough to have watched the events unfold earlier today.

The links to @gillianmckeith were suddenly removed from her official sites.

An examination of the HTML showed that the links were not deleted but "commented out".

This exercise makes it easier for a webmaster to restore the code without having to re-code from scratch. At first the comment out was in respect of just the Twitter link, but soon all the links to social media were commented out.

Unless the website was hacked into, the commenting out was done by someone with authorised access to the HTML code.

This person may be Ms McKeith, but - if not - it would be a person who was acting on her behalf and who was aware of the misleading tweet.

The most plausible explanation is that it was either Ms McKeith or someone acting on her instructions.

(I suspect the latter, as I understand commenting out to be a technique often used by webmasters when faced with unclear instructions to remove material, as it is easily restored.)

The question then becomes what explains this sudden modification to the website code.

There could be a completely innocent explanation.

It may be that there was a scheduled web redesign.

It may be that there were things being said about Ms McKeith on Twitter which would make it understandable for the official website to not want to send traffic there.

There are other, less innocent explanations.


One possible explanation is that the code modification and the misleading tweet were part of a concerted and deliberate effort to mislead people as to the official status of the @gillianmckeith Twitter account.

We are not yet in a position to know if this was the case and, as it is a serious allegation, I do not adopt it until I have verified certain information,

But if that is the correct explanation, then - in the context of @gillianmckeith having attacked the integrity and honesty of Dr Goldacre - there could be an adverse impact on the integrity and honesty of Ms McKeith.

For a concerted and deliberate effort to mislead people is of course what @gillianmckeith said was being done by Dr Goldacre with his "lies".


There may well be a full and complete explanation for the code modification and misleading tweet, a coupling of events which would otherwise raise a question as to the integrity and honesty of Ms McKeith.

No defamatory meaning is implied by any of the above, and none should be inferred.

It is possible that Ms McKeith herself is blissfully unaware of what happened and will be horrified at what was done by those with control over both her website and twitter account.

Further information is required and is being sought, although I have not yet had any response.

But, depending on that further information (or whether any further information is forthcoming), we will then be able to form a view as to the integrity and honesty of Ms McKeith.


Many thanks to the dozens of Twitterers who have provided material which I will use for the blogpost to follow.

I also would like to commend @zenbuffy, whose speedy and thorough account of today's absurdities is an example of blogging at its very best.



COMMENTS MODERATION

No purely anonymous comments will be published; always use a name for ease of reference by other commenters.

NO DEFAMATORY STATEMENTS ABOUT GILLIAN MCKEITH WILL BE PUBLISHED.

84 comments:

Martin Budden said...

Jack of Kent may be many things, but no one can accuse him of writing long paragraphs.

jstreetley said...

My thoughts almost exactly, I've been speculating similarly this afternoon. I do have a question regarding the authorship and liability for her content.

Assuming the author of the tweets and editor of Ms McKeith's webpage are authorised, instructed, contracted or employed by her in order to represent her; is Ms McKeith or her company responsible for content and its repercussions, or is it still down to the individuals acting on her behalf?

bengoldacre said...

Regardless of who made these comments, I do - in all seriousness - expect an apology from @gillianmckeith and Gillian McKeith for this very serious defamatory allegation, and a simple clarifying post in her twitter feed: "Bad Science by Ben Goldacre is not lies".

I think it would be wise for them to simply post this and move on.

Craig552uk said...

This person may be Ms McKeith, but - if not - it would be a person who was acting on her behalf and who was aware of the misleading tweet

The web administrator may not have been aware of the tweet or any of these events. They may well have received a simple instruction (possibly from Gillian McKeith) to remove the twitter link from the site.

As you mentioned, 'commenting out' HTML code is common way of blocking code making it easy to reinstate later. Had the web administrator been aware of the tweet and had intended to permanently disassociate the twitter account from the website, they would almost certainly not have taken this approach.

chris said...

Following jstreetlys comment if I was to employ someone to produce my website, and they go off the rails, would I have to set the law on them to prevent the law being set on me?

Jamie said...

Just for the sake of veracity, many of the poo-prodder's 'tweets' were automated from the facebook page that her site also linked to - facebook.com/gillianmckeithOFFICIAL
I guess this is why the rest of the social media links on her site were taken down.
Distance oneself from everything you can, and claim that they are fan-run or PR-run accounts on her behalf.

Now, if we can prove that she runs the facebook page too, she's really up to her neck, without a paddle. Although she might enjoy that.

Claire said...

Well done for a diplomatic post, stating only the facts. It would have been very easy to jump to the less innocent conclusion as I think many of us have. I hope that it IS innocent, but either way, the bigger person would simply admit ownership of one's tweets and either stand by them with explanation, or apologise for them. I hope this can be resolved... no one likes their good name to be marred.

Daniel said...

If there's one down side to today's (hugely enjoyable) debacle it's that Ben Goldacre has taken the stance he has on libel as a means to oppress free speech. Admirable as it is to merely ask for a retraction I'd love it - kevin keegan love it - if Mckeith were hoist by her own legal petard.

Daniel said...

Had the web administrator been aware of the tweet and had intended to permanently disassociate the twitter account from the website, they would almost certainly not have taken this approach.

This assumes a certain level of competence from Mckeith's organisation, particularly the online side of it, that is sadly lacking.

There was never any chance of the twitter feed being permanently disassociated anyway, as all the cached pages, screencaps and archived newsletters shows.

Henry said...

I suspect that some people DO act on behalf of a 'famous' person.

Put it this, way I was going to do some music promotion work for a relatively famous artist.

So in my mind already decided, I would be the one posting tweets, myspace comments, blog entries thus freeing him (or her) time and space to concentrate on other affairs.

But as lippy, feisty as I am in real life (ie as myself) when representing a client I am - to put it simply: SHIT-scared of bad PR disasters as that.

So my alter-ego is actually of someone incredibly patient, non-aggressive, diplomatic non-impulsive etc and even elusive with replies such as 'I can see where you are coming from" etc

What happened here is that IF a person was indeed typing and acting for her, this person was too overly protective and SHIT hit the fan.

It's a very valuable lesson to learn because I DO want to promo celebs in future. ETHICAL ones though ffs !! And I would hate myself for the rest of my life should such a PR disaster as such happen because of me.

IT is easier when you represent someone else though. Because any attack at the person, shouldn't stick on you (in theory). But it is also very important NEVER to represent someone you are also a fan off. Because if you identify too much, you may do worse than the original person.

Hence must remember only to accept work from mediocre people!! It helps!

Philip Painter said...

I think what's happened is a cover-up that's not been good enough. The evidence is there in the deleted tweets and the HTML comment surrounding the link to the Twitter account.
I anticipate that she'll give Ben a public apology before the end of the week rather than digging a deeper hole.

Dan Brady said...

You are what you tweet …

James said...

It's Wiki-law Live!

Could almost hear the sharp intake of breath at each step in the saga!

In the saga so far...


Ben says that the wise thing is for them to make a corrective statement and move on.

Yes, indeed that's probably the sensible thing, but who isn't secretly hoping for more intrigue tomorrow?

Wireman said...

A "second, more substantive" blogpost would struggle to achieve the elegant simplicity of the storytelling in this one. Extremely well done.

Scott K said...

"@gillianmckeith accused Dr Ben Goldacre of publishing lies in his book Bad Science."

Could you clarify if, here, lies is legally equivalent to incorrect information information? ie if @gillianmckeith was to say, "the lie in his book is that on page 165 he says 'Blah Blah' and in fact it is 'whatever'" then her claim would be justified? Or is lies taken to mean some form of malicious intent?

Of course, I don't doubt Ben Goldacre's scrupulousness in preparing his book, but mistakes and errors do happen, and I would be very pleasantly surprised if in an 80,000 word book, there were absolutely no errors, mistakes or ambiguities.

remotesensingiekologia said...

Great job, Jack. I was directed here via Ben's tweet and anxiously waiting for next chapters of this saga. Obviously spreading the word around on the progress.

Gordon Rae said...

I'm fascinated by this for two reason. In my professional life, I'm a consultant who advises businesses on their use IT, and the internet, for communnication of various kinds. But I'm also doing a PhD in the sociology of knowledge.

The dispute between Gillian McKeith and Ben Goldacre is one that I've been aware of for a long time, and it reminds me of the feminist philosopher Donna Haraway, who says that science is the domain of all that is contestable and contested, and scientific disputes are about engaged, accountable, partial perspectives on knowledge.

Calling somebody a liar isn't a scientific point of view. It may be that you have evidence that they deliberately said or wrote something that they knew to be untrue, but that would be an ethical point, not a scientific dispute. We all believe things, and some of us attempt to persuade others to agree with our beliefs. Persuasion is not wrong. But to say that somebody else lied is to say that the rest of us should not let them persuade us, because they are trying to deceive us.


But where this case becomes truly intriguing is that we don't know the identity of the person making these allegations. A Twitter account, or an email account, is not a person at law. We do not know who has been operating the @gillianmckeith account. There are three questions there. First, who registered and owns the account (McKeith, or an admirer, or an adversary); second, who has access to the account and postds from it; and third, was the account compromised, hacked, or interfered with by an unauthorised person? We also need to ask the same questions of the "official" websites from which links to the Twitter account were commented out.

The real skill in moments like this is to be able to distinguish the evidence in front of us, from the interpretation. This is important for what happens next.

Julius said...

Jamie said: "Now, if we can prove that she runs the facebook page too, she's really up to her neck, without a paddle. Although she might enjoy that."

I visited her facebookOFFICIAL page and scrolled down the wall, clicked on the 'older posts' link at the bottom and found on 18th may at 21:02 a link recommending her twitter feed:

"Check out my Twitter. I have great tweets! You will love them! I want to read your tweets too. Let's inspire each other.
www.twitter.com/gillianmckeith"

I've taken a screengrab, although amusingly, someone had beaten me to it and left a comment too...

Charon QC said...

I do worry that there is an element of mobs with flaming torches outside the gates on this.

I have read Dr Goldcare's articles on the web, in so far as I can find them. I enjoyed reading them - measured, analytical and subtle.

I am much taken with his kind approach to accept a statement that what he writes is not lies - that is dignified.(Rather than resort to to a Britain's Got Damages approach to law)

Appearing in libel courts before judges is not always helpful

Sorry to take a contrarian viewpoint - but there is more to the rule of law than using it to humiliate and claim money? I do hope so. But I am not a practitioner and I do not make my money from the misery of others as some lawyers appear, increasingly, happy to do.


I hope that this stance does not disappoint. :-)

nickfitz.co.uk said...

You may be interested to know that, at the time of posting this comment, the Gillian McKeith homepage is still using JavaScript to load information from @gillianmckeith via the Twitter API, specifically the public account info and the latest tweet, into every JavaScript-enabled browser that visits the page. The HTML that would be used to display that information has also been commented out, so it is never seen, but the information is loaded, which would be an odd thing to do if it was an unrelated account. I've posted the technical details on my blog.

Ellie said...

Charon QC,

There has been a lot in the news lately about the need for libel reform. GM has previous for being litigious herself. I too laud Ben's restraint in this case, but I think there is an excellent argument for demonstrating to the world at large what our libel laws are supposed to be for when used responsibly, and for showing those that are so willing to fall back on them to silence their critics that they are not immune.

I for one am hoping that, if he doesn't received the requested clarification and apology, Ben takes this one as far as it will go.

Steve Jones said...

I think an interesting little point here is whether a twitter message with the appearance of coming from the poo lady seeming to accuse Ben Goldacre of telling lies in his book is defamatory in the sense that I doubt there is any real damage to his reputation (which is what I think libel law was originally about). Indeed some might argue that if it came from this apparent source, it would actually improve his reputation among the majority of people that actually care.

Indeed it seems to me that the most fun of this is a little fun at ridiculing Gillian McKeith. Indeed I can detect a sense of deep joy among many of this very prospect.

So, in context, if this can be traced back to the actions of Ms. McKeith or by those under her direct control, then what fun? But then, equally, what real damage apart, of course, from all those who should be working scurrying around their web caches looking for evidence. The economic damage could be incalculable...

Hopefully we won't get the law too involved in twitter. For the most part a bit of ridicule is more than enough.

Nick Dixon said...

I tried the Wayback Machine but that has only archived pages up to July 2008, before any mention of twitter/facebook/etc.
Good bit of digging by Julius, though.

malcolm coles said...

Julius wanted proof she runs the FB account. There's this tweet: http://twitter.com/gillianmckeith/status/12349373148which says "Some people think that my new personal Facebook is not really me. They seem to think it's an imposter." which obvioulsy implies that it is.

I also enjoyed http://twitter.com/gillianmckeith/status/12230881554: "I have two wonderful people working on the internet and social networking. So please check out my new and improved FACEBOOK account!!! g x"

Euan said...

I think that it's clear Ms McKeith is carefully thinking about her next move, will get legal advice etc and come to some sort of halfway house that distances herself personally: "It was a member of my staff" "I only send some tweets to them to post" "reorganising my online content"; but also begrudgingly apologise "I do not believe Mr Goldacre to have maliciously printed lies about me".

I don't want to see anyone libelled when a reputation hasn't been sullied. Though her hypocrisy is tangible. The thing that annoys me is that had the situation been reversed and Mr Goldacre in a moment of weakness called Ms McKeith a liar, the media attack dogs would be calling for his head.

Neuroskeptic said...

GMcK is clearly a very angry woman. Her brain chemicals are all out of goose. She needs to eat more turnips, or something.

Davidlost said...

Out of interest, couldn't Twitter technically be in trouble for publishing the libel? If Mr Goldacre was that way inclined, which he's clearly not. It's like a newspaper not moderating it's online comments or it's letters page no? Twitter is not an ISP, it provides a service which is occasionally moderated - look at the removal of certain accounts - so should fall under the same restrictions no?

minifig said...

I'm not a supporter of the poo queen, but if you assume that the Twitter account *had* been hacked, presumably a sensible move from McKeith's camp would be to temporarily disassociate her from the account until it was brought back within her control.

I'm not saying that is what happened, but it's another way of explaining some of what went on. It also might be why tweets were posted then deleted - the account was compromised, but the password never changed, so the actual owners were deleting tweets they felt to be inappropriate, ones they had not posted.

Pickle said...

Steve Jones,

I think the most damaging thing she said about Ben was to accuse him of being in the pay of the big pharmacuetical companies. As you probably know, Ben writes endless columns about the evils of Big Pharma and has included a chapter on this in the same book where he criticises Gillian McKeith. Gillian has millions of fans and is (unfortunately, in my opinion) therefore in a position of great influence. Her accusation has the potential to influence the opinion of many people who have never heard of Ben, potentially causing them to dismiss him as a big pharma stooge when in fact he's the opposite and is one of their biggest critics. Surely that is damaging to his reputation?

Mhairu

Gareth Jenkins said...

One of the interesting things that's worthy of note here is the apparent anonymity of the twitter posts.

Obviously the question of who authored the tweets in quetion is quite inmportant and it would seem, from casual observation, as if that might be a fact forever in conention. However - it is worth noting that twitter will have logs of the IP address of the connection used to post the tweets.

The IP address doesn't usually track back to an individual computer (or mobile phone etc) but and the ISP who own that IP. The ISP, however will have records regarding which of their customers was allocated that IP address at the time. The result? There is an evidence trail regarding who authored those tweets (or at least who's computer was used to do so). Unless it happens to be public device (from a library or net cafe or the like), that gives a pretty good, objective, idea of who the author actually was.

Simon said...

Why would Ms McKeith post a retraction or apology when it's quite clear that Dr G wouldn't sue her for libel anyway? For her, there's nothing to be gained from that, just more humiliation.

A better tactic woould be to lie low and wait for everyone to lose interest (which on the Internet is Any Day Now). Then she can quietly reinstate the links from her site and there'll be little attention paid to it.

Dr. Brian Blood said...

With Ben Goldacre and Gillian McKeith's approval, might I suggest this 'spat' might be settled with a fulsome apology to Ben and a generous donation to the estimable charity Sense about Science?

Mojo said...

Perhaps she has another Spanish work-experience student.

by Kimbo! said...

Who needs TV? A classic saga of Good vs. Evil, or in this case Rational vs. Irrational, which is basically the same thing, eh? However, like most good stories this one needs to move to a conclusion without dragging on too long. I hope that Good soon triumphs and Evil learns its lesson, and we all live happily ever after.

David Cochrane said...

You may also be interested to know that her most recent newsletter still likes to her 'Official' twitter page. Here's a link.

Adam said...

@minifig

While it's possible that GM's Twitter account was hacked, I don't think the scenario you suggest is plausible. Surely if the hacker hadn't changed the password, then as soon as GM's Twitter underlings had realised what was going on they would have changed it themselves to keep the hacker out, and tweeted an explanation of what happened. Even if the hacker had changed the password and GM's team were locked out, I imagine they could get in touch with Twitter to get things sorted out, and would probably have done so by now.

Dr. Brian Blood said...

Further to David's post:

re twitter:

http://www.gillianmckeith.info/newsletter/PHPnewsletter_newbranding_standard.html

http://www.gillianmckeith.info/newsletter/Q&Awithgillian_1of5.html

http://www.gillianmckeith.info/newsletter/Q&Awithgillian_2of5.html

http://www.gillianmckeith.info/newsletter/Q&Awithgillian_3of5.html

http://www.gillianmckeith.info/newsletter/Q&Awithgillian_4of5.html

and many more found via:

http://www.gillianmckeith.info/newsletter/

and re the 'title':

http://www.gillianmckeith.info/newsletter/29-06-06.html

Thomas said...

Surely in a case of libel, a published defamation, the publisher is as likely to be actioned as the author.

William Satire (Jr.) said...

Hmmm... I'm not sure what I feel about this. I'm reminded of Phil Plait's "Don't be a dick" talk at TAM 8.

Anyway, if the hurt is genuine and this isn't just another twitchunt and people being pleased with themselves just because one of 'the enemy' has made a slip-up, then my two cents are...

BCA sued Simon Singh, not the Guardian. So wouldn't it be possible to get onto McKeith with a threat to sue whoever wrote the post. She'd have to say who did it then (or set up some poor sod to take the fall) She or one of her employees would have to know who the author was.

Worm said...

There is also a mirror of her official site

http://www.drgillianmckeith.tv/

(note the use of 'Dr' in the URL)

This still has the link to Twitter on it.

Gordon Rae said...

I don't agree with CharonQC's suggestion that "there is an element of mobs with flaming torches outside the gates on this." Unlike the Stephen Gateley article, when a lot of people were offended, everybody's response to Ms. McKeith seems to be good-natured amusement, fact-checking and Schadenfreude. There's an excellent piece on Cubik's Rube this morning.

The point at which the giggling stops and it gets serious, however, is the suggestion that Ben Goldacre's book is "lies" told by someone "who makes money from pharmaceutical giants". This is not just a criticism of BG. It's a criticism - possibly fair, posssibly not - of normal, scientific, evidence-based medicine, from the point of view of altenative medicine, designed to alter people's confidence in doctors by telling them conventional medicine is worse than quackery, and scientists are paid for by vested interests.

In the Singh BCA case, the Court of Appeal was much impressed by the argument that scientific disputes ought to be settled according to the methods of science. But a lot depends on how we interpret the phrase "lies about another by an ass who makes money from pharmaceutical giants." Does it mean that Ben Goldacre misrepresented the nature of naturopathic medicine (for example, Gillian McKeith's beliefs about chlorophyll), or that he misled his readers about the true nature of conventional medicine, because he was being paid to serve vested interests?

If we take the second interpretation, that seems to me to be closer to Mr Justice Eady's reading of the word "bogus" in SinghBCA, rather than the meaning applied by the Court of Appeal.

chunkylimey said...

@bengoldacre I would be really happy if you pursued this through the libel courts.

Effectively what you would be doing is working the system in reverse for a change and any damages award would be at the expense of McKeith's operation (which I believe needs to be penalised for what looks to me to be dubious practices - but that's just my opinion).

If you sought damages as well you could do so "ethically" as long as you ensured that the money raised thereby immediately went into either libel reform or a legal fund for scientists and science writers to use when threatened with censure via the British law courts.

You can offer her the Tweet option but I would suggest you give her a time limit on it and then pursue the legal path because if you don't tackle her now she's going to carry on abusing the system and making a lot of money out of exploiting ignorance.

Best wishes Martin (aka) chunkylimey

Dr. Brian Blood said...

What to we make of this?

http://twitter.com/gillianmckeith/statuses/18517738649

which reads:

"The moral of the story: Love your neighbour and your enemies too."

I think Gillian is going to have to do better than this.

Andrew James Carter said...

I find the suggestion that the @gillianmckeith account may have been hacked to be somewhat implausible. Given that the official website was changed almost concurrently, we must assume that any hypothetical hacker must have hacked both the twitter account and the McKeith official website. While this is indeed possible, it raises three further issues which strain credulity:

1) It is fair to assume that any hacker acting in this way would have malicious intent. Why then would they give their victim an "out" by posting the "Do you actually believe this is real twitter site for the GM?" tweet? Any hacker seeking to damage Ms McKeith's reputation would likely have tweeted worse.

2) The twitter link was only removed from Ms McKeith's YouTube account hours after the "main event". If this hypothetical hacker was still active at this time, why bother removing a link from YouTube but doing no more damage in the interim?

3) It is also fair to assume that the hacker would not worry about deleting their own defamatory tweets. Hence we must conclude those tweets were deleted by another. If this is the case then (a) why did this other person not act to change the password of the account and scupper the hacker, (b) why did this other person not delete the "Do you actually believe..." tweet, and (c) why did Ms McKeith not immediately act to distance herself from the issue as her legal and PR teams would undoubtedly have instructed in such a situation?

The only plausible answer to these questions seems to be that there was no hacker and that the actions and comments we witnessed yesterday were taken by Ms McKeith or someone acting on her behalf.

This leads us onto the question of whether the blame (and, thus, liability) lies at the door of Ms McKeith or someone in her employ.

If we are to assume that Ms McKeith did not post the tweets herself, then we must also assume that the poster had license to (a) post in the first person, acting as a direct proxy for Ms McKeith (b) deliver instructions to whoever manages the official gillianmckeith.info website (unless this is the same person), (c) post and manage personal photographs of Ms McKeith; as found in her twitpic page.

While this is still possible, it does seem a little implausible. However, it may be somewhat moot depending on the legal status of such a person:

Given the control and facade employed by this person - who, given the general nature of tweets issued by the @gillianmckeith account, acted in such a way as to suggest he/she was Ms McKeith herself - would Ms McKeith not still be legally liable for the actions of this person while they were acting on her behalf?

However, the answer to that is beyond my legal knowledge ...if only there were a lawyer around here somewhere...?

Martin said...

You are very good at avoiding conjecture :)

I, on the other hand, am not. Gillian still has links to the website operated by the school that granted her a PhD and it was interesting to see that it is closed down. Even more interesting to read in 'Quackwatch' that it is accredited by an agency that is not recognized by anybody that matters.

Margo said...

If the tweets were made by someone in GM's employment or auhtorised by her, would she not be vicariously liable for their content in any event?

It seems to me, howeverm, that the same arguments apply as with the hacker theory - if the messages were not posted by GM would she not have taken immediate steps to distance herself and post clarification, explaining that her account was hacked, or that the tweets were posted in error by an employee?

I have great respect for Dr Goldacre and he sems to be taking a very sensible and measured approach, but if he does not receive the retraction he has requested it does not appear to me that it would be unethical to pursue the matter further - after all, he also offered an unedited podcast to give her the opportunity to respond (and indeed substantiate any allegations, in the event she asserts they are acccurate) so there is no attempt to fetter her right to free speech or freedom of information

Dr. Brian Blood said...

Although this explanation of what constitutes an 'agent' comes from Canadian juridiction:

http://www.duhaime.org/LegalResources/ConsumerCommercial/LawArticle-187/Agency-Law.aspx

the tweeter must surely be either McKeith or an agent (that is, somebody acting on behalf of and authorised to pass themselves off as McKeith).

In which case I would think that McKeith would find herself in hot water whether as a result of actions by her agent or through her own efforts.

My gut feeling (so now you know I am not a lawyer) is that it is McKeith who finds herself, and not for the first time, in deep s***!

David Gerard said...

@Davidlost:

"Out of interest, couldn't Twitter technically be in trouble for publishing the libel?"

Probably not. Entirely US-operated side, so completely covered under CDA section 230. (The Wikimedia Foundation was recently taken to court for defamation by a user and got it thrown out immediately using Sec 230.)

Someone in the UK could *try* to sue Twitter for providing a platform for defamation, but they'd be (IMO) on a hiding to nothing.

6OrMoreCharacters said...

It's highly unlikely that @gillianmckeith isn't genuine. The last tweet in December 2009 from @gillian_mckeith (apparently "@gillianmckeith 's extra twitter" [sic]) says "My official twitter is: www.twitter.com/gillianmckeith (@gillianmckeith)".

@gillian_mckeith also follows @gillianmckeith. I rest my case.

Brennig said...

Whatever one's views on this spat, your careful analysis is pithy and to the point.

rankersbo said...

I too think the mobs and pitchforks person lacks the ability to read tone. People are having a laugh. I think the schadenfreude is entirely justified by the nastiness of the comments that spin

On "lies"- well I believe there is a simple description of a lie- it must be a factually untrue statement that was known to be factually untrue by the

There's been mission creep of the term "lie" to include opinions uttered by politicians that sound more positive about the subject in hand than the listener feels. But seriously I don't believe the term can stretch to mean "I think that person has got his facts wrong".

Tim Grant said...

"As I cannot - with certainty - state who tweets as @gillianmckeith"

It is possible to determine the likelihood of authorship of these tweets using methods which have been admitted in UK criminal trials and withstood attempts at appeal. The three most relevant cases I’m thinking of (Danielle Jones, Jenny Nicholl, Amanda Birks) involve murders where defendants’ alibis depended on text messages sent from the victims phones. In each case the linguistic evidence was that the disputed messages were consistent with the defendant and not the victim. My feeling is that text messaging is linguistically similar enough to tweeting that the methods should transfer across and would require certainly 50 and up to 200 GM tweets where there was no dispute that GM had sent them. If these could be found it might be fun to give it a go...

Steve Rolles said...

"Do you actually believe this is real twitter site for the GM?"

could have another meaning - ie a challenge to the reader who might be questioning the official status, rather than a denial.

Steve Jones said...

I'm with CharonQC on this. This is no issue for a court to deal with. I think the blogosphere and the publicity should be sufficient to embarrass Dr. Poo in this instance.

It's fun to provoke princess poo, but it will surely have to go a lot further before it warrants court action. It certainly wouldn't be something I'd want to see happen, and it would be interesting to know from JoK himself if what we've seen so far would be eligble under his favoured libel reform legislation.

As it is, then unless said scatty woman (note, as in scatalogical - I'm not qualified to comment on her sanity) was to escalate the situation, I imagine it will get nowhere near the court system.

maxallen said...

A great account of this fascinating case of twitter libel

Nigeledw said...

Since there is so much resistance to reforming the libel laws could we not kill two birds with one stone to create an investment fund designed to go after quacks and others who use threats and other improper behaviour and share the damages and risks across the investors - with reinvestment to allow for further more adventurous prosecution. All we need is a few people like Ben Goldacre who can be defamed and libelled at regular intervals by the rich but stupid and we are made.

alancalverd said...

We must keep the libel laws out of science. Except when they protect Ben Goldacre, of course. Frankly, I found the Ryanair/Easyjet case a lot funnier.

Daniel C said...

At the risk of sounding like a heretic within the JoK reading community, can someone please clarify the difference between "knowingly promoting bogus treatments" and "knowingly promoting bogus arguments"? Surely the latter is the definition of lying?

I realise the difference between Goldacre's case and the BCA's was that Goldacre is correct in what Hebraic whereas the BCA's statements were of course wrong, leaving Singh in the right with his article. That isn't my point.


The argument was never that the BCA shouldn't win the case (though that was still true), but that the law shouldn't allow it to have been brought in the first place.

In that light, on what basis are we supporting the idea that the law should allow Goldacre's case to be brought, should he so wish, instead of (as with #singhBCA) having to say "Ok Gillian, let's see your evidence"?

I'm sure someone more involved can spell out the difference to a poor uneducated soul like me but, until that time, it does, as suggested by a poster above, seem to be a case of skeptics claiming that libel law is wrong, except when it applies to us.

Jack of Kent said...

@Daniel C

Heretics very welcome, and a good question.

Chuckles said...

An interesting post J of K, thank you.
I find the modern tendency to label and shriek LIES!!!, at the drop of a hint, extremely tedious, but to each his own.
And clearly, either GMcK or A.N.Other feel that Ben G has told some fibs, so the belief in his pristine virtue is not universal?
As I recall, I enjoyed reading Bad Science some time ago, but vaguely remember that I also felt a couple of things were not 100% correct. But so what? It is published for entertainment, not to be brandished on the steps of the temple and issued as holy writ.(Although I am happy to be corrected on this)
And hence, a request for a tweet saying there are no 'lies' or 'mistakes' etc in Bad Science is meaningless, as it is unknowable, and is mere opinion?

If I may request your further thoughts on a couple of points -

The difference between stating that Ben G has published lies, and expressing an opinion that they are not true?

Dr. Brian B touched on the 'agency' issue above. Could you expand on that a little?
i.e. the difference between GMcK posting, an associate/friend of GMcK posting, and an agent of GMcK posting.

Tony Lloyd said...

Chuckles asked the difference between saying that:

"Ben G has published lies, and expressing an opinion that they are not true"

When things are said that are untrue they may be said:

1. Believing them to be true.
2. Not caring whether they are true or not.
3. Believing them to be false.

"3" is a lie, "2" is bullshit, "1" is a mistake. Committing "3" is almost always held to be a worse thing to do than "1".

Which comes back to Daniel C’s point about there being no difference between:

"knowingly promoting bogus treatments" and "knowingly promoting bogus arguments"? Surely the latter is the definition of lying?

The issue here is that Simon Singh did not write “knowingly”. Judge Eady interpreted his words as meaning that and most of the debate around the case was whether that interpretation was correct. The opinion on both sides was that if the interpretation was upheld then Simon was in trouble. That is to say if his words were an accusation of lying then he couldn’t win his case. At least on this point, it was if “lies” then libel and if “mistake/bullshit” then not libel.

And on to alancalverd’s implied accusation of …er..selectiveness. The dividing line between “science” and “other stuff” may not be crisp and clean, but it is still there. Say someone accused Ben of being a pigfucker. That would clearly not be “science” such that the libel laws should be kept out of it. Ben would be entitled to object even though he is a bit of a science geek who tells us loads about science and stuff. Say that someone said “dark green vegetables do help oxygenate the blood, Ben got it wrong”. I would say that would be a scientific statement and libel should have nothing to do with it.

Now to say “Ben lied about dark green vegetables oxygenating the blood” says more than “dark green vegetables do help oxygenate the blood, Ben got it wrong”. Specifically it imputes a state of mind (and consequent moral state) to Ben. Is that part of “science”, something that we should keep libel laws out of? I would argue not. It’s a statement about Ben, like “Ben is a pigfucker”. Science can progress and do all its sciencey stuff (like establishing whether or not dark green vegetables oxygenate the blood) without reference to Ben’s state of mind. As great as Ben is science could operate without reference to Ben and, even, without his existence (the pigs might be happier too). So “Ben lied” and even “Ben lied about science” is not “science” and its perfectly consistent to want libel laws out of science whilst hoping that Ben sues the arse of Gillian McKeith.

Daniel C said...

@Tony Lloyd

You are, of course, right about Singh. Apologies, my mind/memory obviously weren't working at full speed this morning...

fcw said...

As Worm pointed out, McKeith appears to have another site at

http://www.drgillianmckeith.tv

which still links to the twitter feed in question from its home page. Curiously, this site is branded 'Gillian McKeith official site'.

This site looks as if it's out-of-date, since it refers to things in 2009, not 2010, but it doesn't look bogus (despite the odd spelling error here and there) since it has a design that's consistent with the other McKeith family sites that the official site links to:

http://www.gillianmckeithrestaurantguide.info/

http://www.gillianmckeithclub.com/

http://www.mckeithinteractive.com/

http://www.gillianmckeithclinic.com/

Perhaps it's just aimed at a different market, rather than deprecated-but-not-disabled, but it could just be that it's been forgotten about, hence the continued presence of a "Follow me on Twitter" badge, at least for now.

Gordon Rae said...

In another astonishing display of what Ms. McKeith would call "anti-American bigotry", the United States Congress held hearings recently on
<a href="http://genome.fieldofscience.com/2010/07/deceptive-marketing-of-dietary.html>the deceptive marketing of dietary supplements</a>. If Congress has no respect for pill-makers who lie to their customers, what hope is there?

Dr. Brian Blood said...

If you run a search of links on the http://www.drgillianmckeith.co.uk web site (which if addressed directly immediately takes you to the http://www.gillianmckeith.info site)

thus:

http://www.seochat.com/?go=1&option=com_seotools&tool=13&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.drgillianmckeith.co.uk&display=external&imageverify=U5R8P&timehsh=4156307a56546b3d&submit=Show+Links

you will find an entries:

http://twitter.com/gillianmckeith follow gillian on twitter

http://twitter.com/gillianmckeith follow me on twitter

So now we know.

fjpatterson said...

Trial by Twitter and blog post. It's all unedifying and boring. If Dr Ben Goldacre feels sufficiently aggrieved to defend the allegation of lies, let him get on with it in court. I'm with Steve Jones: where's the evidence of damage? I'm not as clear as the posters to this blog about the direction of flow of malice, but it's clearly not one-way.

Dr. Brian Blood said...

@fjpatterson

Isn't Steve Jones' point that there is little or nothing to be gained from going to court and that if GMcK is to be 'tried' anywhere it should be here in the blogosphere?

I cannot speak for others, but malice is not what drives me to point out that:

i. much of what GMcK pedals is based on questionable science;

ii. many of the comments she makes supporting her products and her advice are grounded in 'bad' science, which raises questions about her understanding of quite basic human biology, physiology and biochemistry;

iii. she has been incredibly stupid vis the Goldacre twitter incident, which questions her intellectual capacity;

iv. it has taken concerted action by many of those posting to blogs like this to have the ASA stop her attempting pass herself off as medically qualified (viz. Dr. Gillian McKeith) when she has only a questionable 'PhD' from a now defunct American College of Natural Health.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clayton_College_of_Natural_Health

If you find it all this tedious then maybe it is time to stop reading the posts.

Roger said...

"It can be demonstrated (in now deleted tweets) that @gillianmckeith accused Dr Ben Goldacre of publishing lies in his book Bad Science."
Were any of the supposed lies cited or was it just a general accusation of unspecified mendacity?

Dan said...

A fine piece of investigative journalism here. I'm not sure what you consider to be "more substantive" than this very thorough posting, but I look forward to seeing it.

The fact that many Twitter accounts are used by proxy is no secret, and whomever that is represents Ms. McKeith and Ms. McKeith almost certainly (though not necessarily) gave that person access to her account for PR purposes with the understanding that their posts represent her and her company. The caveat is due to another possibility: the PR department created the twitter account, had it linked to from the website and facebook account, and Ms. McKeith may not be in any way aware of the account.

Of course, when you register a website you must supply certain information, such as contact information. This clearly links a website to some entity, here either the company or the individual. Since the website's administrator linked to the twitter account, it seems that the website and twitter account are at least operated by the same entity.

As for Twitter's responsibility, they are almost certainly protected here. While they occasionally remove accounts (and are therefore not a neutral carrier, or whatever the proper term is), they do not and are not expected to police the feed on their own. In order for them to be liable, at a minimum, they would have to have received a message, perhaps to their abuse department, notifying them of the libelous content, and they would have had to fail to act. However, the poster removed the tweets on their own. Since the posts no longer exist, Twitter is not responsible to remove them, and are not liable. Of course, the person who posted them is still fully liable.

I almost hope Mr. Goldacre chooses to pursue this in court, assuming that the requested retraction is not posted in the near future. I hope that any funds received (after perhaps a small amount to arrange for a reprinting of his book with this particular critic's review) would be used in the defense of those who are wrongly subjected to the legal whim of people like Ms. McKeith.

Finally, a direct reply to Roger: There are no specific points made by Ms. McKeith in her twitter posts, merely claims that he 'lies' and some other insults.

Roger said...

Thanks,Dan. Mere vulgar abuse then. I thought it likely because no-one had specified exactly what she said but am glad of confirmation.

Dr. Brian Blood said...

@Roger

There is a distinction, in law, between 'vulgar abuse' and 'libel'.

Indeed, if the person purporting to be Gillian McKeith (or as Ben puts it, 'to give her her full medical title 'Gillian McKeith'), can show the 'statement ... amounts to an insult or is mere vulgar abuse it is not defamatory'.

I quote from:

http://www.yourrights.org.uk/yourrights/right-of-free-expression/defamation/defamation-elements-of-a-claim.html

DrJG said...

Roger said:

"Were any of the supposed lies cited or was it just a general accusation of unspecified mendacity?"

It seems to be a standard feature of McPoo and her ilk that they will not let the accusations and abuse get down to specifics, as can bee seen from this sorry tale linked from another recent JoK post

http://www.quackwatch.com/14Legal/dd_suit.html

"You are wrong and you are mean and you are unfairly targeting us but we refuse to specify exactly what you have said that is demonstrably false" is their mantra.

DrJG said...

I note that the twitter page in question has received no further posts for a few days. Perhaps someone has realised that, if one truly is what one eats, they are currently their own foot.

Mojo said...

@Dr. Brian Blood:

Re the "vulgar abuse" defence:

Note the sentence following the one you quoted: "It is arguable that the defence of vulgar abuse is not available if the statement is a libel."

But see also Eady J's comment in Smith v. ADVFN, on whether this defence could apply in the case of postings on a bulletin board:

"It is this analogy with slander which led me in my ruling of 12 May to refer to "mere vulgar abuse", which used to be discussed quite often in the heyday of slander actions. It is not so much a defence that is unique to slander as an aspect of interpreting the meaning of words. From the context of casual conversations, one can often tell that a remark is not to be taken literally or seriously and is rather to be construed merely as abuse. That is less common in the case of more permanent written communication, although it is by no means unknown. But in the case of a bulletin board thread it is often obvious to casual observers that people are just saying the first thing that comes into their heads and reacting in the heat of the moment. The remarks are often not intended, or to be taken, as serious. A number of examples will emerge in the course of my judgment."

It is certainly arguable that Twitter postings are of a similar category in this respect.

Dr. Brian Blood said...

If we accept that Twitter postings are of a similar category to blogging and bulletin board postings then I would draw your attention to #108 of Smith v. ADVFN

"I would not suggest for a moment that blogging cannot ever form the basis of a legitimate libel claim"

Clearly, it might be argued that the 'words complained of' are 'mere vulgar abuse', and therefore not defamatory, but #108 suggests that line could fail.

Bruschettaboy said...

While this is all good clean fun, I think it should probably be borne in mind that (in my view as a libel "hobbyist" rather than a professional), Dr Goldacre's chances of winning a libel action would not actually be all that great, for the following reasons:

1. As Mojo correctly notes above, Smith v ADVFN seems to suggest a precedent under which message board posts and blog comments would be considered more like slander than libel with respect to the "mere vulgar abuse".

2. Given 1), it's very likely that this would also be found to be the case with respect to Twitter.

3. Given 2), I would think it most likely to be a hell of a job to prove that the tweet in question should be taken as making the unequivocal defamatory accusation that Dr Goldacre has inferred from it - if this is right, it doesn't mention either Dr Goldacre or Bad Science by name).

4. For example, with respect to 3), McKeith might reasonably argue that she is not obsessed with human faeces, and that the word "lies" referred to Dr G's regular implied claims that she is. Although Dr Goldacre presumably believes that it was his scientific work that was being impugned, there are an awful lot of words in "Bad Science" which the subjects might not agree with and some of them might be inaccurate (or at least, sufficiently arguable to sustain a defence of justification).

5. Even assuming 1-4 overcome, it then has to be noted that McKeith (or at least @gillianmckeith) then unpublished them, shortly after the potentially defamatory claim was challenged. Carrie v Tolkien and Smith v ADVFN both suggest that it is very difficult to get an actionable claim off the ground for such a transitory posting.

I think this would be a real waste of time and money.

Dr. Brian Blood said...

@Bruschettaboy

re. point 1.

I refer you to #108 of Smith v. ADVFN

re. point 2.

see response to point 1

re. point 3.

The exact form of the 'twitter' conversation is given in the two links below:

The start is given here:

http://themediablog.typepad.com/the-media-blog/2010/07/1611130710-gillian-mckeith-twitter-ben-goldacre-phd.html

What follows is to be found here:

http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2010/07/gillian_mckeith_does_not_have.php

You will see that, taken in context, the reference is direct and specific.

re. point 4

it would be particularly interesting to see how she might 'justify' her injudicious comments.

As for publication, this might be helpful:

"To constitute a libel there must be a publication, as well as a writing. While a defamatory writing is not libel if it remains with the writer undelivered, yet if it goes to other hands, even inadvertently, there has been a publication. The writing must go into the hands of persons who by a knowledge of the language or of reading are able to become acquainted with its contents. In relation to criminal libel, it has been adjudged that, even if the defamatory communication has been seen by no one but the person to whom it is addressed, a case has been made out, as in such an event it is likely to cause a breach of the public peace. [Barrow v. Lewellen, Hobart's (K. B.) Reports, 62 a (152); Lyle v. Clason, 1 Cairnes (N. Y.), 581.]"

ref: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/09210a.htm

junket said...

Just a thought, but it seems unlikely that the insanely litigious Gillian McKeith would allow a random outsider to tweet under her name!

Moriarty yaffle said...

It seems to me that the exact mechanism that protected Dave Osler would protect Ms McKeith here, if any action were to be brought. The twitter statements may or may not be capable of being defamatory, but what damage has Mr Goldacre suffered? Anyone who has heard of him will be unlikely to consider him in a less favourable light because Ms McKeith dislikes him or considers him to be a liar.

The game isn't worth the candle, to borrow the phrase. If the damages that could be recovered aren't proportionate (not just to your own costs, but to the public purse in making a court and judge available to rule on it), you don't necessarily get to Pass Go anymore, still less collect your £200.

(Which I happen to think is a good thing. I think Ben Goldacre has played this one exactly right, and has quite possibly sidestepped an intentional trap of "see, these scientists complain about libel being used to silence critics, but are quite happy to use it when it suits them")

I may be attributing a degree of cunning which is unfair, or utterly unfounded, but even if it was never in the minds of those who twittered, some would have been saying it had Ben rushed off to Carter Ruck.

My personal opinion is that Ben's chapter on "Doctor" McKeith speaks for itself, and if I'd been the subject of that chapter, I wouldn't be bringing anyone's attention to it.

Notadoctorjustalawyer said...

I'm a longtime reader of Badscience, and one thing that occurs to me (bearing in mind that I'm an insolvency lawyer and haven't done any defamation since I was a trainee) is whether there could be an argument that, in circumstances where the offending tweet has been taken down, articles such as http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2010/jul/18/ben-goldacre-gillian-mckeith-twitter could be seen as a failure to mitigate loss?

Al2erego said...

Here's an idea - If GM has distanced herself from the twitter account, then the ownership of those comments are 'uncertain'. Why not collect them together, publish them on a series of T-Shirts ("Gillian Says") and sell them to raise money for a fund to help people to defend against unnecessary libel cases? As soon as she comes out to defend her copyright she is admitting to Libel...

Robert Williams said...

You would think people would learn after this episode, but no.

A charming Australian Senate Candidate, recently spouted some homophobic remarks on Twitter, and then quickly deleted them.

The story is now here

http://www.news.com.au/breaking-news/abbot-backs-racist-homophobic-candidate/story-e6frfku0-1225903528197

Dr Eric Berg said...

Martin Budden, your are so right about it.

Dr Eric Berg said...

so true Martin Budden. we can't question him about that.