Posts Tagged 'Sheffield Wednesday'

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.

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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.


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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