No, not a rant about Levison!
During the last few months some concern has been expressed about comments passed on the Blog. It has to be said that the concern was well meaning and recent events such as the defaming of Lord McAlpine on TV and on Twitter show just how dangerous this can be.
With this in mind I sought legal advice (took quite a while as it was free!) and also asked a friend of the family who, although not a lawyer, works in an industry that seeks to protect the reputations of businesses and specialises in internet activity. I have to say I am still not 100% clear but offer this advice as being about a sound as it seems to get.
Ten people were prosecuted recently having been accused of naming a woman (on social media site) who was raped by a footballer, and this was followed by swift civil action against organisations and individuals who â€œnamedâ€ Lord McAlpine as a paedophile when clearly he was not. Social media, like this Blog, has given a generation the freedom to say what they like with almost no accountability or comeback. For many people, these media are the first places to go to let off steam and express (often strong) views and opinions. They have provided accessible platforms for people outside of the mainstream media industry to affect and shape the reputation of individuals and organisations. So how far can â€œFree Speechâ€ be used as an excuse?
The answer would appear to be simple, it canâ€™t.
In individual cases, the legalities are becoming clearer and in the rape case mentioned above, the law gives the victims and alleged victims of rape and other sexual offences lifelong anonymity. Those commenting on the case, therefore, are deemed to have broken the law by simply naming the victim on Twitter and can be held accountable. I suspect none of us would argue with that.
Individuals and businesses are also protected by defamation laws (The Defamation Act 1952) which are torts or civil wrongs. This is true of social media but complainants must be able to prove that:
a) the person who published the statement did so knowing it was false or did not care whether it was false or not, and
b) financial loss has to have been caused or is likely to have been caused.
There have not been many high profile social media cases probably because of the costs involved but for Lord McAlpine that was not a problem. The incredibly damaging nature of what was done to him would no doubt have stirred many to the same action. Unfortunately social media moves at such a pace that if a complaint ran on and on a costly court case would follow, take a long time to reach a conclusion, and the damage would already have been done.
That is not an excuse for us and we must be extremely wary of potential lawsuits.
A simple defence to a claim is to show that the comments were actually true. So, a comment like â€œMira Hindley was a murdering scumbagâ€ is not a problem even if she were still alive. Clearly the comments on Newsnight, Twitter etc, about Lord McAlpine were not and repeating (or retweeting) those comments when someone else has said them offers no defence as so many are now finding out.
The bottom line is please think carefully. I have no desire to deter anyone Blogging, especially our regular contributors. I also accept that many read our posts, and the comments, whilst not adding comments themselves. Free speech is important and our Blog is important to far more people than many realise.
Protecting others is something we worked hard to achieve throughout our careers. Staying within the law is something we respect and whilst we have let off steam (a lot!) we seem to have stayed within the law. This post has been offered to help us keep to that and still enjoy what we do here.