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