Football causes disappointment and delight for fans. It does the same for libel laywers.

Following the Usmanov case,there seems to have been a raft of ‘cease-and-desist’ actions around the internet, most notably the bunch of Sheffield Wednesday fans wondering where the money’s gone[1], and secondly the Society of Homeopaths who got somewhat miffed at the suggestion that this relatively unproven medicine might not be all that [2].

Firstly, I doubt very much this is a relatively new tactic. It’s just before Usmanov the internet community wasn’t quite as aware, or as bothered by it. Very much like the phone-in and BBC scandals, once people start looking, or bothering, the instances are there. Anyway, that’s somewhat of a side issue.

What this does show is that the internet, while on one hand democratising us all and giving anyone and everyone a voice, is also the most vulnerable to the stifling of free speech.

This largely comes back to a problem I’ve repeated ad infinitum. You could make an argument, certainly in the Quackometer site, that what is being raised is in the public interest. To my mind, Dr. Lewis would have several other defences in a court of law before he’d even have to fall back on Reynolds. That’s assuming he’s actually libelled someone, which I’m not entirely convinced he has. Yet Ben Goldacre can write about the same topic in the Guardian and nobody’s removed the article or forced Goldacre or Guardian Unlimited to be taken down.

If anything, this neatly highlights the problem. On one hand, major media organisation writing about issue worthy of debate. Publish and be damned, and the article remains in situ. Internet blogger catering for a more niche community on exactly the same subject – one lawyer’s letter later and the offending article, if not the whole site, could be forced down.

Yes, given anybody can take finger to keyboard and make any kind of accusation, it’s probably useful to have some form of legal controls and redress in place. But the playing field seems far from level with all other forms of published media, tilting the scales away from freedom of speech.

That, to my mind, shows our libel laws need to be rewritten sharpish to take into consideration the vastly changed nature of communication rather than waiting for piecemeal case law judgements that can often be at odds with each other.

In the case of the Sheffield Wednesday fans, there’s a slightly different, if still very much related to the core area, issue. To be honest, much of what I have to saw on this would be parroting my post on Martin Watson, the Hereford United fan banned from the ground for running an internet forum.

It’s not unsurprising football should be seeing more than its fair share of cases in regard to this issue. The 92 league clubs, plus the hundreds more in the lower tiers over have a very passionate, (inter)active fanbase who willingly engage online. Take a look at any unofficial forum for any football team and that’ll immediately become apparent.

In some respects the Guardian somewhat mislead by describing the Wednesday fans as bloggers when the offences took place within a forum. Unityneatly describes the differences between libel issues faced by bloggers and those by forum admins:

“Getting back to Iain [Dale] and his warning to anonymous commenters on his blog, notwithstanding anything else that I’ve said, the position in law that Iain faces is no different to that which has been explored by several bloggers in the wake of the Usmanov issue. UK libel law hold ISPs, webhosts, forum owners and bloggers liable not only for their own content, but for anything they ‘publish’ up to, and including, anonymous comments. It all very well issuing ‘warnings’, as Iain has done, but in doing so he rather misses the point that its only by virtue of the largesse of the litigants in the Owlstalk case that it appears that they’ve chosen to pursue claims against a small number of specific members of the forum, when  they could just as easily – more easily, in fact – have pursued the owner of the forum.”

What I would disagree with Unity is on his explanation of the reasoning and motvations behind the original postings on the Wednesday forums – namely suspicions about the balance sheets.

There are a lot of very suspect characters who’ve been involved in football clubs in the past, and there are probably some still running clubs at the moment. You’ll also get a section of the fanbase who are better informed than others and ay use the forums to raise awkward questions. It certainly gets done a great deal on the Exeter City forums.

There will be some postings that are downright libellious. In my experience, moderators are usually pretty swift to pick these up. Genuine discussion of the off-the-pitch matters often concern matters that are in the public interest, and deserve to be at the very least debated and aired. [3]

However, there is a fine line between libel and genuine discussion, and not all posters will have received the basics in libel. Nonetheless, the free speech issue still remains. It may be uncomfortable for the club or individual and they may not enjoy what is written but if it is done fairly, and is an honestly held opinion or, better still, true, it has the right be be heard – nobody should be allowed to censor something just because they not like the content on an unlibellious piece of writing.

The net, specifically forums and blogs, are a fourth and a half estate of sorts. They should be given the chance to behave like one and develop properly into a fifth estate, or merge with the fourth.

[1] Something they’ve probably been wondering ever since they fell out of the top tier of English football.

[2] At the risk of sounding like a stereotypical ‘I’m not an x, some of my best friends are x’s’, I use some homeopathic medicines, mainly to ward off colds. But then I use paracetamol to do the same thing. Both appear to work. One could probably do with a bit more research into it.

[3] And, in the past, I’ve heard some pretty-eyebrow raising football-related stuff covering several different clubs that the media often don’t touch but gets picked up on the forums and then by the media. At least several of these have come from pretty impeccable sources and without the forms a large proportion of the fanbase would have been none the wiser.


1 Response to “Football causes disappointment and delight for fans. It does the same for libel laywers.”

  1. 1 Bloggers liable for content « Technobabble 2.0 Trackback on October 30, 2007 at 10:59 am

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October 2007

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Yes, this is my name. And my email. Use it wisely or you're not getting a biscuit with your tea: garyllewellynandrews [at] gmail [dot] com

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