Professor David Colquhoun of the Improbable Science blog has apparently been threatened with legal action over a blog post about CANCERactive. I am baffled. I am confused for various reasons, including the following: I’m uncertain of the objectives of the charity, I am uncertain of the basis of the legal threat, and I am uncertain of the status of the trading carried out by the charity.
The legal threat
Chris Woollams refers to “the 5 libellous comments [Prof Colquhoun] originally made against me and others in the 2006 blog”. I am unable to tell you what these “5 libellous comments” are – not for legal reasons, but because I simply cannot see five comments in the 2006 blog post that might be defamatory. Perhaps Mr Woollams and I have different understandings of what might constitute a libellous comment.
I am also confused by “Fact 10” in the statement from Woollams, which seems to refer to the charity’s website carrying a link to a website run by Woollams. Here is a quote from the statement:
The team used my url temporarily and mistakenly and have now reverted to http://www.therainbowfoods.com which will become http://www.ournaturalselection.com linking it to the concept of the site, so you need be confused no longer.
I am not sure where on the CANCERactive webpage the url (that was temporarily and mistakenly used) has reverted to rainbowfoods.com, but I can still see one link that goes to the Woollams website. As I look at the CANCERactive page now, I can see near the top of the page a shopping basket icon with the text “Natural Selection Shop” that links to chriswoollams4health.com and have a copy of the page source that confirms this (in fact, there are links to various pages on chriswoollams4health.com showing at lines 284, 405, 607, and 729). Perhaps Mr Woollams was referring a link elsewhere on the page, or to a link to a different site (there are two links to pages on the rainbowfoods website, so one of those might be the link referred to). [*See update, 12th July.]
The objectives of the charity
On their website, CANCERactive say this:
CANCERactive is a charity set up to provide cancer information – no more, no less – not just on orthodox therapies but on prevention, complementary and alternative treatments too. That information centres on Cancer Watch which records research studies from around the world. It is not CANCERactive’s aim or purpose to provide advice about or treatments for cancer and as such nothing published by CANCERactive should be interpreted as advice or a recommendation for the treatment of, or cure for cancer or any of its symptoms. Cancer is a serious illness and people should always seek specialist medical advice. In particular cancer patients should inform their doctor before using, or refraining from using, any non-orthodox treatments. CANCERactive has a very clear stance that there is no single treatment, in our opinion (drug, vitamin, orthodox or other therapy), that is a ‘cure’ for cancer.
The Charity Commission website has this:
1. The relief of sickness of persons suffering from cancer by the provision of support, information, advice and counselling
2. The advancement of education of the public by funding for research into cancer and the dissemination of the useful results of such research and by providing information and advice
Once again, I am confused. Does the CANCERactive charity provide “cancer information – no more, no less” or does it provide all elements of the objectives listed on the Charity Commission website, which include “relief of sickness … by the provision of support, information, advice and counselling” and “funding for research into cancer and the dissemination of the useful results of such research…”? Perhaps the important notice on the canceractive.com home page needs to be phrased more clearly.
The Charity Commission website, here, explains how charities may trade. My confusion here is with regard to which of the classifications CANCERactive’s trading should come under (primary purpose, ancillary, or non-primary purpose). I cannot tell whether their trading is contributing (directly or indirectly) to the charity’s objectives or should be classed as non-primary purpose – which seems to be defined as ‘trading to raise funds, where no significant risk is involved’.
The accounts can be seen in a PDF on the Charity Commission website: link. £86,714 income came from “products of choice” and £39,751 income came from “magazine and book income”, with other income from donations, fundraising etc. The direct charitable expenditure came to a grand total of £80,355 – which was broken down into £7,154 for “magazines, books and publications” and £73,181 for “cost of goods sold”.
From looking at the Charity Commission guidance and the objectives of the charity in question, I guess that the income from and expenditure on publications would constitute a direct contribution to the charity’s objectives and would therefore come under “primary trading”. (I am assuming that the trading in magazines, books and publications is in furtherance of the objective to provide information to persons suffering from cancer.)
I cannot work out what the income from “products of choice” or expenditure on “cost of goods sold” should be classed as. If the sale of the products and the costs of goods sold referred to were to directly contribute to the objectives (support, information, advice, counselling and education, according to the Charity Commission website) then they would come under “primary trading” (if the products are food supplements, then presumably this would not be the case). If the products were held to indirectly contribute to the objectives then they would be under “ancillary trading”. Another possibility is that the trade in these products might be “non-primary trading” – for the purpose of raising funds for the charity.
I was sufficiently interested and confused by all this to send an email to the Charity Commission to ask for some clarification on what constitutes primary, ancillary, and non-primary trading.
Another blogger had complained to the Charity Commission about two charities (including CANCERactive) but it seems that both complaints were dismissed by the commission.
Update, 10 July
The blog post on Improbable Science has been removed.
Update, 12th July
The Charity Commission informed me that HMRC decide on the status of trading, so I have contacted HMRC regarding CancerActive’s trade in food supplements to ask whether they can respond to my query. I have also contacted Trading Standards about the advice given on the CancerActive website regarding products sold in the “Natural Selection” online shop.
*The url that was used mistakenly and temporarily was in place as early as 10th November 2010: link and was still in place on 8th July 2012, when I downloaded a copy of the webpage and printed off a PDF of the page source. If my maths is correct, that’s about 20 months. The site ChrisWoollams4Health.com now seems to redirect to therainbowfoods.com (which, according to the blog post linked to in the comments by Guy Chapman, was itself registered by Chris Woollams).