A storm in a brown envelope? Comment moderation issues on the Isle of Wight

Here’s a legal tale from the Isle of Wight, where the local council has taken objection to commenters on the Ventnor blog making references to “brown envelopes”.

The Ventnor Blog, which won TalkAboutLocal’s ‘Best Hyperlocal site in the UK’ award in 2010, has received legal letters from the council asking it to remove several readers’ comments from its site.

VB has a post-moderation policy and has since complied with the requests. It takes issue, however, with the use of council resources to write these letters – and its threat to remove the site’s media accreditation.

The local news site has previously run into access issues on the island, when the Coroner refused to allow VB’s Simon Perry into his court – but permitted the local newspaper, the Isle of Wight County Press, to stay.

Meeja Law contacted both VB and the Isle of Wight Council to find out more about the recent exchange of emails.

At the heart of the issue is the council’s objection to VB moderating its user-generated comments after,  rather than before, publication.

While the council did not wish to reveal the details of its recent correspondence with Ventnor Blog, it confirmed it had issued two legal letters by email in regards to the issue reported by VB here.

It claimed, however, that “it is extremely rare for the council to issue such communication”. One of these letters, it said, was also a reminder that “no meaningful reply had been received to the first”.

Steve Beynon, Isle of Wight council chief executive, told Meeja Law, in a statement, that for “reasons of accuracy and fairness” he believes “the council has an obligation to protect its reputation – and that of individuals associated with it – from baseless and damaging allegations that insinuate corruption”.

“The council has no wish to frustrate free speech however it is my belief – shared by members of the media team who are trained journalists with decades of experience in the industry – that with free speech comes responsibility.

“Just as letters to a newspaper are checked from a legal point of view by a trained editor and ‘live’ calls to a radio phone-in would usually be subject to a delay to prevent inappropriate comments being broadcast, I believe comments left on a website that purports to be a news outlet should also be checked to ensure potentially defamatory material is not published.

“Many current affairs news sites pre-moderate comments with little apparent harm to the principles of free speech.

“I do not think it is the responsibility of the council – and nor does it have the resources – to monitor websites around the clock. As per the above, we believe it is the responsibility of the site editor, hopefully trained in issues such as defamation, to make a sensible decision on what to publish.

“Similarly if a serious problem is identified it is entirely right to register concern through the established legal process rather than via an unknown and uncertain ‘report a comment’ process.”

VB does not think the request for pre-moderation is reasonable. It believes that post-comment moderation is an industry standard. The site told Meeja Law that to change the moderation policy to moderate all comments before they go live on the website “would go against the advice from our media lawyers and the policy that most major publishers also work by”.

Its “‘Report A Comment Button‘ takes less than a minute to use and if completed correctly will be dealt with as soon as practically possible,” VB said.

“This button provides all readers with the ability to report a comment that they believe is either defamatory or offensive. Our policy is to respond to these reports as soon as is practicable, taking down the comment whilst we investigate the validity of the claim.”

“As proved by our actions in the past, we respond swiftly to take-down notices, will continue to work in that way and therefore, will not be changing our moderation policy.”

Although the offending comments have been removed, the council is still demanding that VB actively moderate its site – if it doesn’t the site will lose its media accreditation, it says. In his statement to Meeja Law, council chief executive Steve Beynon said:

“We have not issued any threats to Ventnor Blog but have sought an assurance that they will take steps to reduce the likelihood of further potential defamations by more actively moderating their site.

“Without this reassurance we will reconsider, as is our right, whether we continue to accredit Ventnor Blog as a media outlet with which we are prepared to deal. If an outlet wants to be treated as a genuine news organisation rather than a blog, then we feel it reasonable they adhere to the same principles as all the other news outlets with which we deal.”

VB meanwhile thinks it is unacceptable to bring accreditation issues into the argument:

“To suggest that our media accreditation is at risk should we not comply with [the council’s] wishes to change our moderation policy is wholly unacceptable,” it said.

It has asked the council whether it is applying the same conditions to other news organisations that follow a similar moderation policy. It plans to seek advice from the National Union of Journalists in relation to the council’s correspondence.

Ventnor Blog told Meeja Law it is “genuinely grateful when people report the occasional comment that might tip over legal lines – we simply don’t have time to stay on top of the 45,000+ Islander’s comments on VentnorBlog”.

“It’s also reassuring that those at the council are reading every comment on VB – it counters the public view, showing that they are listening to the view of Islanders.

“In what we’re constantly being told are cash-straightened times, it makes sense for the Isle of Wight council to report the very-occasional stray comment in the most economic manner, that isn’t by firing up the costly legal team.

“Tying VentnorBlog’s ‘Media Accreditation’ to moderation of reader’s comments is clearly ridiculous. There is a clear line between the editorial, that is the responsibility of those involved in the publication, and the separate readers’ comments, which are a way for Isle of Wight residents to express and discuss their thoughts and feelings around a subject.”

VB has, however, made a request to readers:

“Having to deal with the ‘you naughty things’ letters from the council’s legal department is a dreadful drag, as well as throwing yours and our taxes down the drain, so please do us a favour and refrain. If you have proof of a claim of corruption, that’s quite a different matter, so please get in touch with us.”

The council, meanwhile, says it will “continue to develop our new media presence through a soon-to-be enhanced website and via ever more popular Twitter and Facebook accounts as well as continuing to provide information to traditional media outlets”.

Meeja Law would be interested to hear from media lawyers, bloggers and journalists with their views on pre and post comment moderation policies, as well as the issues for local authorities making legal claims.

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9 Responses to A storm in a brown envelope? Comment moderation issues on the Isle of Wight

  1. Pingback: Defamation – Case Law: Derbyshire County Council v Times Newspapers Ltd | Philip John

  2. Philip John says:

    At Lichfield Live (previously The Lichfield Blog) we take the exact same approach as VB and wouldn’t stray from that. A lot of thought and research went in to making that decision and we’re confident it’s the right way to protect our own backs and provide a good service.

    IoW council are wrong to demand that VB pre-moderate and threaten to remove their accreditation. It’s as if they’re trying to bully VB to the point that they give up. Having spoken plenty of times to both Simon and Sally I’m sure their passion won’t allow that.

    Part of me would love to see this tested. If IoW really believe they’re being defamed they should take VB to court. One judge has already said “it would be contrary to the public interest for institutions of central or local government to have any right at common law to maintain an action for damages for defamation.”

  3. Mike Rawlins says:

    You should always post moderate. If you pre moderate then you are as responsible for the comment as the person who wrote is as you are in effect condoning or agreeing with them as you are publishing it.

    If you post moderate while you are still technically publishing it you have a defence that you may not have seen it. If you are notified of a bad comment and you are seen to be doing something about it like taking it down then you are covered, to a point.

    Even Northcliffe in their T&Cs say in para 4 Please note that we do not check, monitor, moderate or even see all the comments and other material submitted to us.

    Simon & Sally have had their fair share of issues with the blog but are nothing but professional in the way they manage it. Is it a case of the council using the big sledgehammer to crack the peanut? A phone call or a quiet word would probably sufficed..

  4. I find it incredible that they can threaten to withdraw accreditation on the basis of moderation policy. Either the council serves its public and wants to keep their public informed, or they don’t. What other information people exchange on a news site is a separate matter. Will they stop using Twitter and Facebook if people tweet back offensive comments because they disagree with Twitter/Facebook’s ‘moderation policy’? Will they stop using the town hall for meetings because people are free to shout accusations of corruption?

  5. Sam Shepherd says:

    “If an outlet wants to be treated as a genuine news organisation rather than a blog” isn’t at all patronising, is it? As for adhering “to the same principles as all the other news outlets with which we deal” I’m pretty sure it’s only the BBC that does anything approaching pre-moderation. All the newspaper groups I can think of that allow comments are post moderated, because that’s what the lawyers advise.

  6. Pingback: Does Local Government Really Want Transparency? | Michael Rawlins

  7. Pingback: links for 2011-06-13 « Sarah Hartley

  8. Anon says:

    When people say “ALL” big news sites post moderate are they forgetting the murdoch press which premod user comments???

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