A bit more on libel and t’interweb

First up, a quick update on the blog post by Kezia Duggdale that was taken down, apparently under threat of legal action.

Tim Ireland at Bloggerheads has usefully put together a bit more of a comprehensive background to the issue and it still doesn’t seem all that clear cut (and certainly very different from the Usmanov case):

“The Daily Record goes on to use further extracts from the letter, but stops short of printing other allegations that are, quite frankly, tangential to the central issue here *and* a matter primarily for the authorities until the moment Noor Hanif turns 18.

If at that stage she still wishes to publish these allegations herself and is unfairly silenced, she will enjoy my complete support. I’ll even help her to build the website.

I am not saying that it is right that a blogger can be conveniently silenced without any actual legal action. At all.

But subsequent warnings issued to newspapers suggest heavily that Jahangir Hanif’s threats are by no means idle, empty or even drunken… and in Usmanov’s case, his lawyers completely bypassed any need to go to court by avoiding authors and instead bullying their UK-based ISPs. Bloggers who then went on to defy Schillings by hosting their response(s) on US-hosted Blogger.com weblogs received nothing more than nuisance-level complaints to that provider. Two of the blogs that have published the Noor letter and removed it are Blogger.com-based and it would appear that they were at least contacted and challenged directly about their content.

This is, arguably, still a case of a man with money being able to silence someone without the means to defend themselves but the wider matter is clearly far more complicated than that, obviously party-political in nature, and a lonnnng way from being such a clear case of abuse of UK libel law that the author(s) should expect an immediate avalanche of support.

But – as you can see – I have gone to the trouble of actually explaining the background so other bloggers might better be able to decide for themselves, and that’s a step up from badgering them about not taking immediate action over a complicated game of political football nobody bothered to even notify them about in the first place.”

Political football is what it feels like, and I’d rather stay out of not overly-clear political football. Plus, it’s not clear at what stage the court case is and there’s some pretty strong allegations in the letter that, as Tim notes, are a matter for the daughter at this stage. Family disputes and political disputes… not something I’m overly keen to embroil myself in. As Nosemonkey says in the comments:

“I’m still confused as to precisely what the allegations were/are, however – and I’m not going to support someone in a libel fight if they actually did libel someone.

Saying “someone’s being sued for libel – support them or you’re a hypocrite” without saying why they’re being sued or why it’s wrong is a tad counterproductive, to say the least.”

What’s much more interesting is George Monbiot’s column on the Sheffield Wednesday supporters who were sued for the club for venting their frustration with the club and the team on an online forum – the kind of stuff you’d find on any fans forum of any team after a loss. It has similar parallels with the Hereford United messageboard dispute.

Libel laws in the UK do desperately need reforming to take into account online actions. Websites, blogs, and forums shouldn’t be taken down just because somebody doesn’t like what’s being written on there. They shouldn’t be able to be silenced without any legal action being taken, although it shouldn’t be taken as a free for all to post libellious comments willy-nilly.

It’s a tough balance, and one that is probably best answered than a better legal mind than I, although Mr Justice Eady’s judgment that online comments are more akin to slander than libel are sensible and a step in the right direction.

Libel laws are a powerful tool and can be used to chilling effect. Freedom of expression can often lose out. But this doesn’t mean anybody who has offered support to Craig Murray, Martin Watson, or the Sheffield Wednesday fans should be attaching themselves to any possible instance just because they’re told it’s a free speech issue and should be backed regardless without having any idea what it is you’re supporting.

I’d like to see Britain’s libel laws examined in more depth with a view to making them clearer with reference to online comments. That doesn’t automatically lead to meaning anybody who claims they’ve been denied their freedom of expression should be offered unqualified support. Nor should they effectively be labelled a hypocrite for not getting behind an issue they don’t fully understand and probably wouldn’t have seen unless they had a specific interest in the issue.

6 thoughts on “A bit more on libel and t’interweb

  1. Further to all this, and at the risk of sounding like a traitor to the blogging cause, I do feel it’s long overdue that a blogger actually WAS done for libelling someone so that we can sort out our precise legal standing in a proper test case.

    Let’s face it, various blogs genuinely do libel people every day, and thanks to the ongoing lack of legal action (combined with the US-centric view of freedom of speech that’s spread around the non-American web), it’s become a bit of an assumption amongst bloggers that they are somehow immune to the libel laws and can say what they like about whom they like. We can’t and we shouldn’t.

    The First Amendment applies to the US alone, like it or not. And hell, even the US has libel laws… They’re an important check on the abuse of the press, and – when working well – an important contribution to any functioning democracy, as they are primarily intended to prevent the spread of misinformation. Blogs, of course, thrive on misinformation – you can see why bloggers would get up in arms, especially those who don’t really know what a libel actually is…

  2. You know what, I don’t actually disagree with you. In the long term it would be useful to get some properly established case law down, so we have a better idea where we stand.

    I’ve read plenty before now on reasonably well-read blogs that are pretty libellous and aren’t something I would have published. I’m genuinely surprised that a blog case hasn’t made it all the way to the courts so far (or at least none I’m aware of).

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