Posts Tagged 'libel'

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 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 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.


I disagree with what you say but will defend etc etc part 7231

Libel laws and the internet have long since needed readjusting, probably ever since Godfrey v Demon back in 1999. Since Alisher Usmanov succeeded briefly taking down Craig Murray’s site (along with others, including Boris Johnson’s) the matter’s been an ongoing hot topic on the internet.

I’d put my name to a pledge of support for Craig Murray and Tim Ireland’s campaign against Schillings, Usmanov’s lawyers. Since then, the occasional inbound link has popped up in relation to this, and there’ve been a few further examples. And then, this morning, there was the rather miserable link that came in from, erm, the Miserable Old Fart.

Essentially, it concerns some kind of political spat in Scotland I don’t know much about and, frankly, care even less about. But it’s resulted in one councillor threatening a Labour blogger with a libel action due to something she’s posted on the site, an the Miserable blogger is taking us all to task for not leaping onto our keyboards and defending her:

“All of the following blogs were willing to support bloggerheads. Was their support real? Or was it just an opportunistic way of getting a hit on Technorati?

I hope that each and everyone of them will say a word in favour of Kezia’s right to freedom of expression – but I won’t hold my breath!”

If he wants to drum up support he’s got a funny way of going about it – having a pop at everbody on the list without pausing to consider that it probably hasn’t registered on many bloggers’ radars.

Usmanov was high-profile. This is perhaps a little more regional. Judging by the comments, I wasn’t the only person who’d never heard of it. Largely because I tend to avoid politics and political spats online these days, especially if they’re miles away and have very little relevance to anything I’m interested in.

Plus, there’s a lot that’s not as clear cut here. I don’t know the background or the ins and outs. It also makes a difference if any of the papers involved have been served with libel papers. I don’t know that either. The fact it feels more like a local political spat doesn’t help either. I was turned off from politics partly because of these spats a while ago.

So, without knowing the ins and outs and background (and not really having any real inclination to want to find out more), all I’ll say is if the libel action’s been taken specifically against the blogger than that’s wrong – and she shouldn’t have had to take it down. But that’s just an ‘if’, and I’m frankly less inclined to jump on any kind of free speech bandwagon because of the way it was approached. A little bit of politeness goes a long way, especially if you’re trying to draw support to a cause that nobody’s really heard of.

Libel online

Interesting story this one – a company Gentoo successfully wins £100,000 in libel damages after an internet site was set up to, it appears, harass and smear the company.

What’s quite interesting are the comments from Gentoo’s Chief Executive, Peter Walls, and his brief:

“There is no doubt that the internet can be a fantastic tool for good but we urgently need legal change to enable victims of internet abuse to have a quicker and more effective route to justice.”


“It is difficult to see how the government can legislate effectively in this area because technology moves faster than the courts and there are always new technical loopholes to exploit.

“But one option may be to develop the remit of the Press Complaints Commission, or develop a voluntary code of conduct so that at least reputable websites can distinguish themselves from the rogue ones by signing up to the code as a badge of credibility.”

This case is another example of our libel laws, regardless of what you think of them, needing to be updated to take in the internet, even if there is a growing amount of case law, although not all of it is consistent, especially in how alleged libels in print and online are dealt with.The first two comments also seem a bit muddled. Technology is moving quickly online but abuse and libel still remain abuse and libel. If you’re going to change the law you need to sit down dispassionately and see where the discrepancies lie between online and offline and if they need bringing into line with each other.

A code of conduct may help in the eyes of the law, but given how toothless the PCC are in enforcing offline complaints, it’s doubtful anybody would take any notice of them. Assuming its even within their jurisdiction. How on earth it would work with a libel on an anonymous blog, I’ve no idea. As for accuracy…

Yes quite.

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.

Libel laws

You know in my last post I said I’d like to go into greater depth on Britain’s libel laws but didn’t have the time.

Well, here’s a man who has got the time. If you’re interested in libel laws in relation to the internet (there’s some background into the Godfrey V Demon case that I wasn’t aware of there) then have a read.

For those of you expecting the usual misanthropy or poo jokes, sorry. I’m one of those strange individuals who finds media law quite interesting.

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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December 2022

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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