The blogger, the billionaire and the football club

As many others, a few days late on this but…

Football fans may have noticed in the last few weeks another Russian tycoon has been upping his stake in a British football club. In this case, Alisher Usmanov and Arsenal.

Blogging affectionardos may have noticed notable blogger Tim Ireland’s site along with that of former Uzbek ambassador Craig Murray disappeared.

Political affectionardos may have also noticed Boris Johnson’s site vanished for a bit.

The reason can be found at Tim Ireland’s temporary site. For those who want a brief condensed version…

When Usmanov kept upping his stake in the Gunners, Murray, who knows a bit about the old Soviet Union posted an article about the oligarch alleging the reasons behind Usmanov’s jailing in Russia in the 1980s (Usmanov claims he was a political prisoner. Murray begs to differ).

The oil tycoon’s law firm, Shillings, which had already been warning UK newspapers and Arsenal bloggers about mentioning Murray’s allegations, or generally making allegations about Murray, then made contact with Murray’s web host made a serious of demands, with the net result Fasthosts closed the entire account used to hostMurray and Ireland’s site, which happened to include Boris’s site.

Boris hadn’t mentioned Usmanov and was an innocent victim caught in the crossfire. His response sums things up pretty well:

“This is London, not Uzbekistan. It is unbelievable that a website can be wiped out on the say-so of some tycoon. We live in a world where internet communication is increasingly vital, and this is a serious erosion of free speech.”

Justin McKeating’s been keeping tabs of those bloggers who’ve come out in support of Murray and Ireland. It’s a varied list.

Nosemonkey has a good piece on the libel laws surrounding this.

I’ve been saying for ages that, whatever your opinion on Britain’s libel laws (and mine are they are both daft and overly draconian) they’ve needed a drastic overhaul to take into account of the internet for some time.

My knowledge of the exact ins and outs of internet libel could probably do with a refresher course, but broadly it takes into account existing libel principle applied to the media has a couple of test cases which have resulted in a somewhat piecemeal case law. But basically (I think) the courts take a dim view of those who don’t remove the offending material when asked.

(Those whose legal knowledge is slightly sharper than mine in this area please feel free to comment and add/put me right).

This puts the internet somewhat at odds with print and broadcast media. Granted, they have deeper pockets than your average blogger (although that doesn’t necessarily say they’re overly fond of being sued for millions) but their principal is largely one of weighing up the risks and them deciding whether or not to publish and be damned. That allegation is then judged to be laid down in permanent form and should the claimant decide to sue, it’s up to the media organisation to prove the allegations are false.

Interestingly, any defence of public interest is reasonably recent to the world of libel (that is, the allegations may not be true but at the time of publishing, were considered to be important enough to air and, after due diligence, believed to be true) and is known as The Reynolds Defence (I think this is the latest Reynolds development).

Now, even assuming Usamov took out an injunction, I reckon any UK publication that published Murray’s allegations would have been able to have a decent stab at concocting a defence. I’m also not entirely sure whether Usamov would want the matter to get to court, given what might come out. But, as Dan Hardie notes, papers seem reluctant to go after football club owners (note: contains some of Murray’s original text)

And that is where the libel laws with the internet differ. Usamov doesn’t like it, issues a writ, poof, server capitulates and it saves the tedious problem of things like extra lawyers fees, court appearances, bad publicity and freedom of speech.

If the internet is genuinely part of our media, then it should be treated as such and the same laws should apply. If the matter is of genuine public interest and concern, and I’d say Murray’s article most definitely fulfils that, then the bloggers or internet publisher should be allowed to publish. It’s a basic tenet of free speech in this country. If this was an investigative piece written by and investigative journalist and published in a national newspaper then you wouldn’t expect every single issue ever printed of that paper to be pulped. Because that’s essentially the equivalent here.

(I’m deliberately skirting around the bigger issue of libel laws in general. I’d be here all night otherwise).

The one upside of this is so many people have got royally pissed off by Usamov and Shilling’s bully-boy tactics and have either reprinted, linked to or blogged around the issue that more people than were originally aware of Murray’s accusations have a fair idea of what’s going on. And taking down the site of a high-profile figure such as Boris Johnson was just dumb.

On a slight tangent, the Usamov affair is one that adds to my general depression over Premiership football. It provides a great spectacle, but I’d rather people like Usamov and Thaksin Shinawatra weren’t allowed to get involved.

The trouble is money and success talks. There were more than the usual rumblings and questions when Shinawatra took over (more so than Ambranovich) but as soon as the season kicked off and City started winning, it seems the fans forgot and the press moved onto Sven’s men’s success on the pitch.

No matter what the atrocity, no matter how dubious and repulsive the person, if they’ve got money there will be a, usually large, section of the fans who will turn a blind eye because it’s for the good of the club and the media will add to the complicity because, well, football should transcend politics or some other bobbins. Most probably if Peter Sutcliffe suddenly became a multi-billionaire and decided to buy, say, Middlesborough, he’d probably get in without a murmur.

It makes me glad we only had a couple of incompetent fraudsters in charge of Exeter City for a year.

So please, sign the petition and blog about it. In honesty, it probably won’t make a lot of difference but the more people there are, the more pressure there is and… well, hopefully some good will come of it. Most likely, in a couple of year’s time, Alisher will get a football club, they’ll win the league and everybody will forget just what he got up to B.P.P. (Before Premiership Purchase)

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