A new 'working group' about legal issues for online publishers

At the end of September, I wrote a piece for the Online Journalism Blog arguing it was time for small online publishers to talk about legal.

In the coming months, I’d like to build up the conversation in this area and think about how we might approach some of these issues. If you’d like to be part of this informal online ‘working group’ please consider joining the Help Me Investigate challenge at this link (request membership here), or discussing via the OJB Facebook group.

Paul Bradshaw created this LinkedIn group as “a place for people to more openly discuss how to take this forward”.

My post for the OJB provoked quite a lively debate. Jim Hawkins (@jiminthemorning on Twitter), a radio presenter for BBC Shropshire, argued that extended discussion was unnecessary. Others, such as Paul Bradshaw and Philip John, disagreed.

Hawkins said, for example:

If you know the law, you know whether or not you’re in the clear. Sure, not defaming someone doesn’t protect you from being accused of defamation; but being confident that you’ve not defamed someone means you don’t have to run up a legal bill. I’ve been telling myself not to defame people – or to allow people to be defamed, a daily risk on live speech radio – every day for thirty years, and that’s worked just fine so far.

(…)

Judith’s idea of a support network for people who need advice is a good one; no-one could dispute that. But people who are prepared to publish should be prepared to know the law too.

I agree with his last point, but think that there needs to be wider communication of the issues. My research has not extended to social network users, but I’d be fascinated to know how many understand libel and contempt of court law. I disagree, however, that the grey areas are simple to navigate, or that defamation law poses so few problems.

Update: David Banks, co-author of McNae’s Essential Law for Journalists added this on the OJB post:

I’m all for greater legal knowledge, well I would be wouldn’t I?

But sad to say that does not forestall legal action. If the law were as clear cut as some here are suggesting, then an awful lot of libel lawyers would be out of business.

Many publishers have learnt to their cost that the truth can be expensive if you cannot prove it to the satisfaction of the High Court. Libel claimants know this and the deck is so stacked in their favour, and the danger of loss so expensive, that the mere threat of an action prevents publication. That’s the chilling effect.

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2 Responses to A new 'working group' about legal issues for online publishers

  1. Adam says:

    The last quote there from Hawkins makes me uncomfortable – that’s an incredibly media-centric view of blogging.

    Now, while I quite agree that blogging _is_ publishing, under the legal definition, many – possibly most – of the people engaging in it, the low traffic, blogging for a small network of readers types, see it as something far more akin to conversation than publishing in the traditional sense. And, indeed, the volumes being published now are more akin to conversation than publishing than it has existed in previous centuries.

    There’s no doubt that the law has yet to catch up with the vast change in publishing that has occurred, and a lot of what makes this project interesting to me is that we’re dealing with a transitional state – we’re moving through a process of public understanding and acceptance, the evolution of new norms and, eventually, changes in the law to reflect those new norms.

  2. JTownend says:

    I agree, Adam – and that’s a question I’ll have to come back to (but have been avoiding so far): whether ‘publishing’ is a relevant definition for different types of online activity, and how the law could adapt.

    Also, I’ve just updated the post with a comment by the co-author of McNae’s – he reminds us that the law is not clear cut!

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