Has Libel Law Killed Online Debate?

Mar 25

Thomas Rowlandson, after a design by Lord George Murray: The Contrast 1792, Which Is Best (a comment on British liberty vs French liberty). Source: Wikimedia Commons.

I’m not the first person to mention this, and I won’t be the last, but some discussions with my hyperlocal pals recently have circled around an interesting question: how can hyperlocals avoid getting sued for libel?

The thinking on comment moderation seems similar to that old (and not entirely true) chestnut about gritting: if you grit your land and someone falls on the ice they might be able to sue you for not having done the job properly, whereas if you do nothing you can’t be liable. Likewise, if you pre-moderate posts and/or comments and you still manage to publish something libellous, it could land you in much hotter water than if you post-moderate and have to make a hasty withdrawal of any offending material.

Actually, contrary to predictions, the rise of blogging has not led to the rise of defamation cases, probably because of the sheer number of websites and also because the law is not yet equipped to deal with online media. But it does happen (and if you don’t believe me, check out Rob Minto’s eloquent post on the subject).

It would be a shame, however, if worries over libel prevented free speech on these budding hyperlocals. One of the problems is that hyperlocals are very good at getting the news out to the community, but in order to keep engaging the readership and fostering a greater sense of community, what’s needed are individual voices: in other words, old-fashioned comment and opinion (as my former editor used to say: “The readers like a bit of attitude”).

Yet, what price attitude? Perhaps the government’s recent announcements about changes in libel law might ease the situation, but it’s still not a massive help the busy blogger – expected to stick their neck out in an arena that’s notoriously difficult to understand. We are (by and large) a tolerant nation, and we are right to be proud of that. But sometimes, I wonder whether our anxiety over even-handedness, fairness and transparency has made us allergic to opinion. There’s a bigger gulf than many people think between expressing an opinion and libelling someone; why is opinion regarded as somehow ‘bad’ – an act of hostility towards the reader? Have we lost the art of debate? Should hyperlocals just say ‘Publish and be damned!’?

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