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back to article Legal wigs to sort out rules on internet defamation, contempt

In the wake of Lord McAlpine's lawyers threatening to sue thousands of Twitter users for libelling his name with false allegations of child abuse, as well as the multiple issues surrounding tweets that may be in contempt, the Attorney General has clarified that the same legal framework applies on the internet that applies …

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Unhappy

I don't get this.....

"His name was incorrectly linked to a child abuse case after a botched BBC2 Newsnight programme - which didn't name the peer - reported that a "senior Tory from the Thatcher years" had been accused of child abuse by north Wales care home victim Steve Messham."

So the BBC didn't name him and Mr. Messham was given the incorrect name by the POLICE. Are the police being investigated over this matter? Why have the BBC been pilloried for 'outing' this man. (No names, no prosecution. Oh wait...)

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Silver badge

Re: I don't get this.....

Because it's *identifying* not naming the individual, which exposes them to defamation. Going back, you could have been done for libel if you had suggested a "well known former Radio DJ renowned for running marathons for charity", even though you hadn't actually said "Jimmy Savile". Of course the ultimate judgement would be in court.

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Unhappy

Re: I don't get this.....

"senior Tory from the Thatcher years"

Well that does narrow the field down a lot but how does one jump to a certain name from that list?

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Anonymous Coward

Re: I don't get this.....

Steve Messham has, unsurprisingly, had a hard life and over the course of years has clearly forgotten what he gave as testimony to the enquiry into abuse in North Wales children's homes.

If you look for the enquiry report, you'll find that in it Steve Messham refers to his abuser as having died. He identified him from a photograph shown to him by the police, the surname used for that abuser was the same as that of the man who has just won damages from both BBC and ITV.

There's plenty of information out there if you spend a bit of time with Google.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: I don't get this.....

The reference to the Waterhouse enquiry in this blog post is enlightening:

https://hat4uk.wordpress.com/2012/11/12/exclusive-steve-messham-missing-for-eight-hours/

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Could be a result

Maybe the Guardian will wake up to how pisspoor some of its employees are and start employing journalists again instead of filling its site with the prejudices of bloggers and mashup artists who now do their research not even on Wikipedia but on Twitter.

More Pilger less Monbiot and the world might be a better informed place.

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Re: Could be a result

Colin Millar: "Maybe the Guardian will wake up to how pisspoor some of its employees are..."

Doesn't matter: their online strategy (give away all content for free) is costing them so much that they can't afford to spend any more money on journalism - or even, I suspect, continue to spend what they are currently spending.

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Re: Could be a result

Or to look at it the other way around... Some of the "journalists" are so piss poor that they have troubles even giving the "product" away.

People might be more inclined to pay for something of quality.

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Anonymous Coward

Commentard Abuse

This could impact on website forums more than expected. It is clear that if somebody posts something on a moderated forum about a 3rd-party then libel could result...BUT commentards can also libel other commentards (and they do, albeit mostly tongue in cheek/jest). I foresee a time when, to protect the website from being prosecuted BY a commentard, all comments are publicly anonymous (i.e. we are all AC) - or at least people are told NOT to use their real names when commenting. Behind the scenes ElReg will know who we are in cases of libel against 3rd-parties.

Could get messy.

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Anonymous Coward

but

By definition, you can't defame an anonymous commentard. ....

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Big Brother

Re: Commentard Abuse

Alternatively people will just need to learn to stand by what they say (or shut up).

If you do not know something to be true, why are you posting it? Nothing wrong with expressing opinions as long as it is clear it is an opinion and not a statement of "fact".

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Commentard Abuse @Velv

Nice idea, but it's not always possible to say everything you think needs to be mentioned in a single tweet thanks to the short length limit they still have imposed on users.

If I were to say something like that, and then add something like 'just my opinion' in another tweet then presumably I'd still be in trouble for posting the 1st one, since this has no reference to the 2nd one.

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Silver badge

How about quoting ?

A lot of forums and newsreaders helpfully include the original post when replying. So where does a person who might *rebut* a libellous post, but ends up repeating it stand ?

Also, how about a poster who doesn't repeat a libel, but then posts in a manner which makes it clear they believe it ? Previously with no forum, they were irrelevant. However, with the TwitBook effect, they are recorded for posterity.

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What worries me is that they seem to be heading towards a "if enough people complain" standard. Mob justice and faux outrage as law... great.

Personally, I'd be happier if they picked the cases they're going to prosecute out of a hat.

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WTF?

@ Tom Melly

What worries me is that they pick cases out of a hat to prosecute.

You nearly had an up vote for your first sentence but your second one is to me what your first sentence is to you

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Bronze badge

Work-around

What if you tweet something incorrect, but you clarify that you're merely reporting what somebody else told you? e.g. "According to @bob, Lord McSnooty is a paedo." Can it be libel if you're merely reporting what somebody has said? If so then this very Reg article would be libelous surely?

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Work-around

I don't understand it either. According to wikipedia, if A says something like "B is a paedo!" and C says something like "A said B is a paedo!" then C has libelled B just as much as A did.

But what if C says something like "A *incorrectly* said B is a paedo", is that still libel of B by C? If so, then pretty much every news headline in the past weeks ("A forced to apologise after incorrectly identifying B as a child molestor on their Newsnight programme" etc etc) is using that wording. If not, then perhaps everyone ought to start qualifying everything they repeat with a "according to (but possibly incorrectly)"

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Work-around

isn't that the whole basis of a re-tweet, just repeating what someone else has said? No need to agree or for it to be fact.

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Headmaster

Re: Work-around

Repeating a libel is considered part of the original libel. I understand that means anyone who repeated it hasn't a leg to stand on but is only in the frame for a share of the damages.

I've read the lawyers in question are actually asking for an apology and a £5 donation to a children's charity.

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"according to (but possibly incorrectly)"

To usual version is "allegedly" and I'm afraid it doesn't work. Unfortunately, whilst Judges can be old and out of touch they generally aren't stupid and would spot that one a mile off.

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Re: Work-around

When you retweet something, you are republishing it

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Anonymous Coward

So, it's the responsibility of individuals to fully vet everything they say about everyone? How could you even discuss a court case at all; if the defendant is found innocent this appears to mean that everyone who even mentioned someone mentioning the possibility of guilt is liable for defamation... It seems absolutely insane.

I detest this kind of mob 'justice' applied by rumor, but it seems to me that trying to legislate it out of existence will result in massive collateral damage - even if nobody is prosecuted as a result of a precedent here, the chilling effect could be enormous. How could anyone risk commenting on any subject, given that the next politician or footballer may not be so generous as to request a small donation?

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Anonymous Coward

Umm, no, it's perfectly OK to voice your opinion (for instance, what your conclusion would be of a case, based on what you know of it), but you cannot state such an opinion as fact, because that is libel.

There's something else at play here, and I'm not sorry this case forces it to be looked at. Our laws are based on the presumption of innocence until proven guilty (more accurately, until a judge decides). The online world does not reflect that at all. There are so many people with opinions based on nothing more than an at best tenuous understanding of the facts that are happy to pile in with complete BS that it's maybe a good thing this gets a bit more attention. To me, that is not censorship, that is asking people to respect someone's rights as they would want their own to be protected..

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Anonymous Coward

"Umm, no, it's perfectly OK to voice your opinion (for instance, what your conclusion would be of a case, based on what you know of it), but you cannot state such an opinion as fact, because that is libel."

Going by some posters above, who are saying that saying 'allegedly' (or, presumably, 'in my opinion') won't suffice to deflect libel claims, and that merely saying that *someone else* said something is libel if what someone else said was libelous, that isn't the case.

You could make an argument that just requiring people to say 'allegedly' won't help, because then everyone will just say it all the time and nobody will consider it a real qualifier. So, that would suggest that saying 'in my opinion' (which would essentially be the same) or 'allegedly' really aren't a valid defense, as was pointed out above - and that, in that case, you are in fact *not* free to state your opinion, as it can never be known whether you 'really meant it'.

Or whether other people were likely to think that you meant them to think that you meant it even though you said you didn't mean it...

It quickly devolves into utter impossibility. To my mind, you either quash all discussion of anything controversial, force people to make arbitrary judgments on their own and hope that nobody notices if they get it wrong, or allow people to say things *unless their intent was specifically to harm the individual, and with knowledge that the information was false*.

Of course, my understanding is that in the UK you can libel people even if you're telling the truth, so maybe trying to make any sense out of it is a lost cause to begin with...

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The problem with things like Twitter, in regard to defamation and the like, is that it's a new type of communication (relatively speaking) that straddles two or more different established (and understood) forms.

It has the ease and informality of pub banter, but the permanency and reach of a publication.

As a species, we haven't got our heads around this - or the similarly muddling communication space of Facebook walls/timelines (etc).

It's the same as CCTV - it makes a temporal, transitory public event that might be forgotten - the reach of which rapidly decays as news passes further from those there at the time - into a permanent event which will never go away.

It all changes the nature of the space as we understand it - its intimacy, its permanency, who we're sharing with and how long it will be around for. And we aren't used to banter and gossip being permanent, and we use these permanent publication devices as if they weren't.

Before the internet, the nearest equivalent would have been the postcard, which still doesn't have the immediacy of something like twitter, and is very specific in its audience, despite its open nature.

People are going to have to evolve a more nuanced understanding of the nature of these communication forms. It'll happen eventually, but like most evolution, it's going to be quite painful for some individuals until the species as a whole gets there.

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Black Helicopters

what will happen

is the legal system will be used to make what you or I say irrelevant, whilst what the ruling classes want to say valuable.

There *is* a precedent for this. The introduction of printing in the C14th. Which transformed how - and moe importantly what people communicated about. It's no mystery the inquisition and Jesuits go back to these times. And if you look at the creep of laws we've got in the past 15 years, you'll have an idea of where we are going.

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The Hollywood Solution

Would adding the words "All persons mentioned in this post are entirely fictitious and not intended to bear any resemblance to any person alive or dead" to the end of every post avoid the defamation issue?

This seems to work for the film industry. Obviously it would need an abbreviation to be used on Twitter.

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Bronze badge

Re: The Hollywood Solution

APMIT PAEFAAN ITBAR TAPAOD

Would that work? Or, shoult twitter lawyers append it to all tweets?

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Anonymous Coward

They should all be prosecuted and punished

Many people falsely believe the internet is a place where they can act uncivil, commit crimes and hide behind a PC monitor or electronic toy. They are wrong and I hope everyone of them is held accountable for their violations of law. Society should most definitely not tolerate cybercrime in any way, shape or manner.

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Facepalm

Re: They should all be prosecuted and punished

I agree. In fact, crime should be illegal! I tell you - it's criminal.

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Silver badge

That is very illiberal. Why don't we just pretend the the world is the same as it was a hundred years ago, when everything was so much simpler ...

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Anonymous Coward

Point the finger where its due

The problem here is that the legal system is not fit for purpose, has failed to move far or fast enough, and does not have the systems in place to have it's incompetent members removed by the public.

The position of the public on this is clear, the libel laws are useless and need scrapping and starting again. Specifically EVERYONE is a publisher as far as technology is concerned, but it was never the intent that everyone should be run through the courts for everything they might say (that's a dystopia we need to avoid)

What we need is for the legal system and the courts to feel the cold wind of change blowing through them. We need a situation where the manifestly useless judges & lawyers who do not serve the public properly can be swiftly removed, and even jailed for their actions. And it specifically needs to be the public doing this, since we don't live in a democracy.

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