Friday, 13 November 2009

LIBEL TO KILL

In light of recent events in the Thanet blogosphere (Eastcliff Richard and Adem Djemil), I have decided that I will be moderating all comments made on this blog in the future. From now on, I intend to keep a check on the legitimacy of certain statements made anonymously or otherwise, before opting to publish it (or not). Since I post using my real identity, I simply cannot take the risk that comes along with allowing uncensored commentary to appear on this blog, especially if there's no evidence or factual information to verify whether certain comments are valid or not.


If I'm honest, I don't agree that bloggers should pay the price for something posted anonymously by someone else, but if that's what's defined by UK libel law, then I'm not taking any chances. In an ideal world, I would continue not to moderate comments, largely because I personally feel the Internet should be a place to freely converse and exchange ideas in public debate, preferably being exempt from liability. The reality, of course, is obviously very different.

While I don't think it's fair to treat blogs as if they were newspapers and placing them subject to the same laws and regulations as serious journalism, it must also be acknowledged that from what I understand UK libel law appears to regard a blogger to be the editor of an online publication. Therefore, if somebody contributes to the blog with a defamatory, libelous, slanderous or inaccurate statement, then it's the editor (i.e. the blogger) who faces the chop.

On Michael Child's Thanet Online blog, Adem Djemil posted the following comment:

“The libel laws for the UK and the web need to be clarified that is for sure. As you see from my blog, an anonymous user wrote something and then I am the one getting into trouble for it. It's a very grey area and something needs to be done about it soon.

I would repeat the message that bloggers need to be very careful in what they type or even what strangers type on their blogs because currently as it stands you will be responsible.”

I am in agreement with what he's saying. In fact, I'd like to bring to your attention English PEN and Index on Censorship's report on UK libel law called Free Speech Is Not For Sale. Jonathan Heawood, Director of English PEN, says: “Our libel laws allow people accused of funding terrorism or dumping toxic waste in Africa to silence their critics whilst 'super-injunctions' stop the public from even knowing that such allegations exist. We need to reform our libel laws now, and that's why we're launching a national campaign to persuade our politicians to do so.”

Heawood, of course, loosely references the recent Trafigura toxic waste scandal and the super-injunction put in place by Carter-Ruck to prohibit The Guardian from reporting about the story in parliament. Of course, Carter-Ruck later withdrew the super-injunction, but not without a huge public outcry on the social networking website Twitter, which some have speculated did indeed contribute to successfully bringing the story to light. So, it begs the question, if the Internet didn't exist, would we even know about Trafigura at all? Probably not.

To me, this highlights the power of the Internet: it has great potential to highlight, expose and bring to light stories which might have been swept under the carpet, facilitating great democratic change in the process by mobilizing internet users into action. This is provided, of course, that the evidence is valid and worthy of exposure. Amongst other things, The Libel Reform Campaign concludes that UK libel law does not currently reflect the arrival of the internet and that interactive online services and interactive chat should be exempt from liability, though I'm not quite sure whether that would include blogging.

Naïvely, I must admit, I have long been a champion of blogging as an impregnable bastille of free speech; or an open forum for debate. At university, I learnt about Jürgen Habermas, a social theorist, who claimed that democracy should have a functioning public sphere, or a space where people can debate freely (like the Internet, for instance), without interference or fear of reprisal. Obviously, this doesn't mean I advocate people shouting their mouths off about false or inaccurate information, and I'd sincerely hope that people would have the decency to be sensible and build their opinions upon sufficient evidence and substantiated fact, and not just on irrational hearsay or personal bias.

The Internet, I felt, was very similar to Habermas's theory of the public sphere. As it turns out, I was clearly wrong. I'd like to think this sums up where I'm coming from. Personally, I try my best to write tongue-in-cheek, relatively inoffensive yet occasionally cynical or speculative blog entries. I am not motivated by malice; I don't wish to intentionally destroy other people's reputations; I'm slightly questioning about people's motives perhaps; but overall I tend to base my assertions on fact. Where I don't assert, I speculate, either in a candid manner or in jest, approaching the subject clearly stating that it is my own personal opinion and that I'm open to be corrected wrong by whoever wishes to do so.

For instance, I've said before how I don't like Tracey Emin's art – does that mean I should be living in fear of whether Tracey is gonna sue me for disagreeing with her? Of course not, that'd be absurd. I've even allowed people to comment on this blog who happen to like Tracey's art, and they're entitled to their opinions in much the same manner as I'd hope I'm entitled to mine. That's what free speech is about – the freedom to declare our opinions. If something ceases to be an opinion and veers toward being a statement of fact, in my view, evidence must be presented (i.e. hyperlinks, etc.), so this is why I will be moderating comments in future. I will conclude by saying that UK libel law certainly makes one feel as if bloggers need to be a lot more cautious about what we write than we initially thought, which is a great shame, to say the least.

2 comments:

  1. A good post there Luke. Annoyingly libel laws currently restrict free speech even if there is nothing libelous about what you are saying.

    As most bloggers are private individuals I think recent events may stifle investigative blogging or dissemination of facts for fear of coming up against a person or company with the financial means to bring about legal action.

    None of the comment may be actionable but most of us cannot take the risk or financial burden of having to defend ourselves.

    We must be careful not to just roll over though and we must keep free speech alive just as long as it's within the law and in the public's best interest.

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  2. Interesting what you say there. The recent problems here in Thanet revolved around an anonymous comment on Adem's blog which was claimed by the commentator to be 'fact'. There was no way of verifying that assertion, but nothing I or Adem wrote did, in fact, claim that the comment was anything other than an unverified statement from an unverified source. Given the intense amount of interest in the subject matter at the time, I do not think this would seem unreasonable to the man or woman in the street.

    It leaves us all in some difficulty about comments, as there is a thought that comment moderation may leave you even more open to libel action, in so far as you, as the author of the blog, will have chosen to publish the comment, and were not merely acting as a conduit for somebody else to publish it (ie the commentator themselves).

    This really does all need clearing up with primary legislation, as the current laws pretty much stem back to the 18th century!

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