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Posted by: John Brace | 13th October 2014

Is freedom of the British press over as UK blogging enters the age of George Orwell’s “Ministry of Truth” (1984)?

Is freedom of the British press over as UK blogging enters the age of George Orwell’s “Ministry of Truth” (1984)?

                                              

Ministry of Truth George Orwell 1984 comment removed

Ministry of Truth George Orwell 1984 comment removed

As I run a blog, I will declare an interest at the start of this article in that I am the operator of this blog. Before anyone accuses me of bias again (I will point out that much of the below is an opinion piece based on a recent court case, legal changes and experience).

One of the things I enjoy about writing (and reading other blogs) is that people do leave comments (although many others read without leaving a comment). The United Kingdom is however not an ideal place to base a high-tech business, which is part of the reason that in an ideal world doing what I do, I wouldn’t be based at all in the UK but somewhere that doesn’t have such a peculiar regulatory environment.

Previously the UK was well-known for its “libel tourism” because of the way the courts here operated when it came to libel. However from past cases certain things can’t be libelled, such as a political party or a local council. Even on matters published abroad, in the past lawyers had preferred to sue in the UK because of the way the court system was here and how easy it was to win their case (and how disastrous financially for the defendant even if they won!).

A lot of the laws that govern the media in this country were based on print publications and arguments about censorship have raged for centuries. A lot of the laws were written before the internet actually happened and were frankly, well overdue for reform. Eventually reform came.

For an example of what used to happen, I direct you to the case of what happened involving Carmarthenshire County Council. Details of the judgement in Thompson v James & Anor ([2013] EWHC 515 (QB) can be read by following that link.

Please note this next bit is in reference to Wales (a country within the UK that borders the Wirral but has a different set of laws and legal system (as well as political system) to here in England).

A local blogger there, Mrs Thompson sued the Chief Executive of Carmarthenshire County Council Mark James, alleging that he had libelled her. This was in reference to a letter written from Mark James that referred to Mrs Thompson that was published on another blog (that is not the blog of Mrs. Thompson) that writes under the nom de plume madaxeman.

When sued, the Chief Executive of Carmarthenshire County Council used public funds to pay his legal costs (Carmarthenshire County Council had provided him with an indemnity for his legal costs) and his legal team also counterclaimed against Mrs Thompson for references made about Mr. James on her blog which he took exception to.

The court dismissed Mrs Thompson’s libel claim, but upheld Mr James’ counterclaim.

Although the audit bodies in Wales in relation to Carmarthenshire County Council have questioned the issue of whether using public funds for his employer to pay the Chief Executive’s legal costs in a libel lawsuit is actually lawful, Mark James is now vigorously pursuing enforcement of the court order he was granted against Mrs Thompson through a Land Registry charge on her property in respect of damages awarded to him and the defendant’s legal costs (paid for by the taxpayer).

Partly to prevent the courts getting completely clogged up with libel cases (because let’s face it if everyone who had ever had anything written about them untrue online actually filed a lawsuit with the court that would happen), whereas in the past somebody could sue not only the author of a comment, but the publisher and the editor as well, the law was changed. The UK ended up with a new libel law (Defamation Act 2013), which completely reformed the old libel laws, introduced defences of truth, honest opinion and publication on a matter of public interest and also new regulations were introduced that came into force on 2nd December 2013.

The new libel law also introduced a test that had to met. Any statement that was claimed to be defamatory had to have “caused or is likely to cause serious harm to the reputation of the claimant”. The new regulations are referred to as the Defamation (Operators of Websites) Regulations 2013 and cover comments left on blogs.

This blog (and comments left on it) fall under the new regulations as I’m the operator of the blog and am based in the UK. In theory if I wasn’t based in the UK but the people leaving the comments were, their comments would probably fall under the new regulations too.

In relation to user generated content (such as comments) on blogs, it means that now the operator of the blog (such as myself) is not liable if the operator of the blog follows the rather strict procedure laid down in the regulations when a complaint is made.

The regulations can be read online, but basically as an operator of a blog if a complaint (that falls within the regulations or even a defective notice) is made about a comment on my blog, I have to within 48 hours (assuming the commenter complained about actually has provided an email address) get in touch with the poster of the comment and they then have 5 days to respond. I also at this stage contact the complainant too.

If no response is received from the person who left the comment within 5 days, the comment is removed, otherwise I’m in breach of the regulations. The person who left the comment has five days to respond and the regulations give them a variety of options which partially determine what happens next. For example they can withdraw their comment in which case it is removed at that point. There are however other options also available to them.

Other larger technology businesses aren’t entirely happy with the current regulatory framework under which they have to operate here in the UK and have published transparency reports as to complaints received and outcomes. I have decided it is high time that I did this too, especially considering the views of the media on censorship.

Out of many thousands of comments currently on the blog since the new regulations came into effect on the 2nd December 2013 there have been complaints so far about two. Detail is provided below.

However, I’d like some feedback from you the reader as to the level of detail provided below and how open and transparent I am being. Are there things you think I should include in future reports, that I am not including currently?

Obviously in the case of complaint #1 I’m not allowed to republish the original comment as that has concluded and the author of the comment has withdrawn it. However there seems to be a general pattern emerging as to the type of stories I get requests for comments to be removed on, doesn’t there?

==============================================================================================================
STATUS: Completed (comment removed 4th July 2014 see here)

Complaint number: Complaint #1

Comment author: John Hardaker

Complainant: Surjit Tour of the Metropolitan Borough of Wirral (Wirral Council)

Article comment attached to: Graham Burgess invites Wirral Council councillors to 5 days of the Open Golf Championship

Outcome: Comment author (Mr. Hardaker) decided to withdraw comment and text of comment was edited out with details inserted explaining why.

Note: see also partial transcript of BBC Radio Merseyside broadcast at Councillor Walter Smith “I must say I enjoyed lavish hospitality” which discussed this.

===============================================================================================================
STATUS: Completed (comment removed 13th October 2014)

Complaint number: Complaint #2

Comment author: James Griffiths

Complainant: He/she have chosen to remain anonymous

Article comment attached to: Graham Burgess (Chief Executive) announces he will retire from Wirral Council on 31st December 2014

Outcome: Comment author (Mr. Griffiths) sent email wishing to withdraw comment.

Note:

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Responses

  1. Hopefully these commenters won’t be deterred from making contributions to local blogs in the future. With crooked persons still at the helm, it’s going to be fascinating (and a little alarming) to ponder where all this might end up.

    If there’s a positive to be drawn, it’s that you KNOW you’re getting near the truth, and that you’re STILL dealing with an abusive council that has never improved, when they threaten you with court action, again funded by your own cash.

    It’s filthy work, but we shouldn’t be deterred. We have to battle on and keep banging on the door now that it’s opened a crack, even though some of the putrid, overpowering stench of corruption is seeping out.

    • Well yes I hope people won’t be put off, but the internet is part of our democracy now so they just have to deal with it really.

      From my perspective, as I think has been said before, it’s easy to think there’s some unseen “controlling mind” at Wirral Council deliberately thwarting how things should be and working to their own Machiavellian ends. Life isn’t as clear cut as that though! It’s more chaotic!

      It’s seems to be more the slightly disorganised chaos (that always seems to result from large numbers of people being involved) that leads to problems behind the scenes rather than deliberate screw ups. What amazes me is how just a few key people going on holiday at the same time can lead to major problems.

      Where I work, I’m a key person, although Leonora can do parts of my job, without me certain things wouldn’t happen.

      However if I’m away for whatever reason, I make sure things still do happen in my absence! For example if I know I’ll be away, I prewrite a story for the blog the day before and have it published on the day I’ll be out of the office.

      Things sadly don’t seem to be that simple at Wirral Council. There are plenty of people that don’t have the training or the skills to do parts of their job, so the easy things get done and the difficult parts aren’t (understandable eh)? Or like today when the unions go on strike, things don’t run exactly to plan!

      Threats of court action are easy. However things should really never end up in court, why? The laws are there to protect society and represent a minimum level of behaviour that nobody should go below. A local Council should be setting an example to others by adhering not just to the letter of the law but the spirit of it too.

      In practice Wirral Council seems to see adhering to the law, with the kind of reaction management would have if the trade unions insisted on “work to rule”. This sends out the message to the Wirral population that if Wirral Council can get away with not following the law, why can’t I litter, graffiti, dog foul? Wirral Council should be setting an example.

      Personally, there are many words I could use to describe politicians and senior managers, but I wouldn’t go far as to use the word corrupt.

      • Never mind littering, graffiti and dog fouling…

        Elder abuse, disabled abuse and hate crime are all up John… and probably all round general dishonesty and shitty behaviour, all for the reasons you describe.

        “The abusive council connection.”

        • Well I’ll put my head above the parapet and write this then.

          When Wirral Council give out the message they can’t afford Lyndale School, a school for those with disabilities but doesn’t threaten to close say a mainstream school too, doesn’t that lead to an increase in hate crime towards the disabled?

          For example, my wife with a walking stick gets people shouting at her saying she’s “stealing money” from them, when:

          a) she doesn’t claim the disability benefits she’s entitled to but
          b) suffers the hate crime from people that assume she does and their argument that she’s therefore somehow “stealing” money from them!!!

          Oh and if she’s not a target for her disability, the racists are banging on the car at traffic lights telling her to “go home” (Birkenhead is especially bad for this)! She’s been in this country since she was a child and longer than I have!!! Her mother was born in the UK!!!

          It’s the signals that Wirral Council sends out to society at large isn’t it? Making minorities scapegoats is never a good thing is it?

          The rise of UKIP and the election of a UKIP MP recently in a byelection hasn’t helped!!!

  2. G’day John and Paul

    It is not going to stop me commenting when it suits me but I do think I owe a big apology to the person I have been calling Simon Kelly on this blog and Wirral Leaks.

    I put it down to jet lag coming from the Antipodes last week as I have an old acquaintance in Australia called Simon Kelly who could legitimately wear and hang a “Football Shirt”.

    Sorry Mr Kelly.

    Ooroo

    James

    Go the Lib Dems ………………….. and or anyone except Labor.

    And that is from someone who has never voted anything but Labor, God Bless Gough Whitlam and Bob Hawke.

    But never again thanks to “The Dunny Chain Wearer” “Phil the Dill” “The Pretend Friend” and gang.

    • No, it shouldn’t stop you. I’m sure there are plenty of people with the surname Kelly in Australia!

      Although it’s called the Labor Party in Australia, here they have a u in their party’s name here, Labour. 🙂

      However, I think the problem is, the pommies over here don’t understand the way people, such as yourself write in the Australian English dialect.

      You see the way you write things reflects the Australian culture of egalitarianism, informality and an irreverent sense of humour.

      The pommies over here, either don’t always understand your Australian English dialect or Australian culture or are reading your comments as if you were British and it’s causing …. cultural misunderstandings. Maybe they just don’t watch Neighbours or Home and Away enough!!!

  3. G’day John “Highbrow” and Paul

    You remain heroes of mine.

    I wonder how many of them noticed my spelling of Labor?

    Yep, I call a a spade an effin shovel instead of the mamby pamby way these muppets carry on. Sucking up to Officers.

    I think I might continue to call him Simon in deference to the majority who vote along party lines like “Simple”. Or, to the bizarre u-turn from being the worst scandal in his forty years of local government to wanting WHISTLEBLOWER 2 to apologise. That should go down in Wirral fuklore.

    God Bless Simon Kelly.

    Have a great day.

    Ooroo

    James

    How long do you think they have had the DCLG Report and does it say it was a chaotic shambles?

    • I operate in different spheres of politics to national governments so I have limited experience of the internal workings of the Coalition government that I (and others) created in 2010.

      From a personal perspective knowing what I do know, I would suggest that the “internal processes” referred to of national government are to do with looking at the possibility of breaches of the grant terms and conditions, the quantum of grant they would ask back and the legal ramifications for government and Wirral Council if Wirral Council just say no.

      This close to a General Election, there is always no proper decision making at the highest levels of our national government for reasons it’s far too complicated to put in a comment.

      As I mentioned my sphere of politics is not usually at the national level. The filming issue did teach me a bit about the workings of national government, but this would be my educated guess as to what the hold up is about.

      As Wirral Council could end up being the defendant if they said no to grant claw back, national government is hardly likely to put their cards on the table at this stage are they???


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