Trial by Error, Continued: University of Bristol Responds, Sort Of

By David Tuller, DrPH

Last week, I e-mailed a letter to Sue Paterson, director of legal services at the University of Bristol, to express my concerns about Professor Esther Crawley’s false claim that I had libeled her in reporting on her research for Virology Blog. On Friday, I received a two-sentence response from Ms. Paterson. She addressed it to Mr. Tuller and wrote this:

Thank you for your email of 14 June. Your comments have been noted.

I wasn’t sure what to make of this terse reply. Was that all that Bristol’s director of legal services had to say about the fact that a well-known faculty member issued an absurd allegation during a high-profile event sponsored by this august institution? Had she simply noted my concerns herself, or had she actually conveyed them to Professor Crawley, as I’d requested? Did the university feel any sense of responsibility for what had occurred? Would Ms. Paterson’s noting of my comments be followed by any further missive or perhaps even an apology after the university investigated the event? Who knows?

I responded at somewhat greater length but prefer for the moment to keep the exact phrasing private. My tone was what I would describe as very pointed but within bounds, although I have come to realize that the British tend to interpret within bounds somewhat more narrowly than Americans.

Here’s the first paragraph:

Thank you for your response. (For the record, it should Dr. Tuller, not Mr. Tuller. I have a doctorate in public health, as I indicated in the sign-off to my letter. However, please feel free to call me David.) 

I have a feeling the pro-PACE camp might have difficulty with the Dr thing because my behavior, like tearing up Lancet papers at public events, does not fit their preconceived notions of how people with advanced academic degrees should act. However, this group apparently thinks it’s fine to accuse patients of being vexatious just because they want to know the actual answers that the PACE investigators promised to provide in exchange for five million pounds of public funds.

Anyway, my letter went on from there. To paraphrase: I noted that the prolonged silence from Professor Crawley indicated to any reasonable observer that she could not defend her allegation, and that I took this as her tacit acknowledgment of error. I also noted that Ms. Paterson’s own minimalist, content-free response included no documentation or evidence that anything I wrote about Professor Crawley’s research was inaccurate. I stated that, as far as I was concerned, no further communication about the matter was necessary, since at this point it was obvious to all that I had not written libellous blogs about Professor Crawley.

I also wrote that I hoped someone would explain to Professor Crawley the distinction between opinions she dislikes and libel. And I expressed the expectation that the offending slide would be retired for good and that Professor Crawley would no longer repeat her false libel accusation in public. I explained as well that whatever she said about me in private was obviously her own business.

I have no idea if I will hear back again from Ms. Paterson or anyone else in Bristol’s legal department, but I will provide an update if I do.

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