More on the impact of UK press regulation on blogs, websites, tweeters, and social media

Further to yesterday's post about the way that the UK's new press regulation will affect bloggers, tweeters, tumblrers, facebookers, et al., Lisa O'Carroll at the Guardian points out that anyone who doesn't sign up for the "voluntary" system of press regulation will be liable to punitive "exemplary" damages for libel, as well as being on the hook for their accusers' legal fees, even if no fault is found.

The exemplary damages clause was recommended in the Leveson report but has been opposed by newspapers, including the Guardian, which have been given legal advice that it could be contrary to the European convention on human rights, which enshrines the principle of free speech.

Lord Lester, the campaigner for libel reform, warned during the Leveson debate in the House of Lords earlier this year that publications such as Private Eye and local newspapers could face closure as a result of the imposition of exemplary damages.

On Monday night, the editor of the Guardian, Alan Rusbridger said he welcomed cross-party agreement on press regulation, but said: "We retain grave reservations about the proposed legislation on exemplary damages."

Under sustained questioning on Monday night during the Commons debate about the courts bill, which includes the Leveson regulations, the culture secretary, Maria Miller, said the "publisher would have to meet the three tests of whether the publication is publishing news-related material in the course of a business, whether their material is written by a range of authors – this would exclude a one-man band or a single blogger – and whether that material is subject to editorial control".

But if you and three friends edit a joint Twitter account or blog or Facebook group, you fit the bill. To those who say that a Twitter account isn't a website, I think they're erroneously assuming consensus about what is and isn't a webpage. If is a website, then why isn't

Bloggers may face libel fines under press regulation deal


  1. putting to one side that the libel laws are a mess, why exactly do you think people should be allowed to publish libel, with no consequence? perhaps we’re just arguing about how much consequence. I think it has to be a little more than ‘sorry I got that wrong’ because in the case of a Tory Peer, the twitterverse accused him of kiddyporn, and I rather think that some of the notable journalists and public figures who did so now wish they’d not just passed on an idle tweet in..

    1. First of all, because the answer to bad speech is more speech.

      Second of all, because strong libel laws always amount to a rich bastard’s charter for out-spending critics (cf Simon Singh and the chiropractors)

      But most of all, what we’re talking about here isn’t publishing libel without consequence. Under the rules, even if the “publisher” (by which we may mean, “Two ordinary people maintaining a joint Facebook group where they express strong opinions about the local council”) is totally exonerated, he still have to pay the compainant’s legal fees. Which means that complaining is free, and being complained about costs money, no matter whether you are in the wrong. It’s a moral hazard so glaring you can see it from space.

      1. Sometimes the thing to do with a system like this is immediately start abusing it.  Lodge dozens of complaints against the powers – local and national government, banks, whoever you like.  After all, it’s free!

        Does the Queen tweet?

        1. No. You’re going to have to show up with flowers at a mall opening like everyone else.

        2. Yes and we know that journalists, police and politicians are capable of abusing the system because they’ve been doing so for years. Which is what prompted the crisis in the first place. 

          Yes she does tweet: @@BritishMonarchy:disqus 

          1. The Palace uses Twittter to announce her scheduled events. The Queen has nothing to do with it.

      2.  the answer to bad speech is more speech.

        With the greatest of respect, Cory, that’s a very easy attitude to adopt when you are a best-selling author and a leading contributor to one of the most widely-read sites in the blogosphere. You’re privileged to have all the speech anyone could ever want; what about those of us who don’t enjoy such access?

        I can shout all day at the top of my voice, but I will never be able to make myself heard against the Daily Mail. Absent regulation and/or defamation law, I would be utterly devoid of recourse against even the most grotesque and malicious of allegations.

        1. With respect, you would have plenty of avenues.  Your self-expression is coherent and concise, your imagery is charismatic.

          Some newspaper / news site somewhere would eventually fall prey to your persuasion.  And Twitter is fantastic for spreading the word.

          The times, they are a-changing.

  2. “which have been given legal advice that it could be contrary to the European convention on human rights, which enshrines the principle of free speech.”

    In which case do what I do when the UK implements laws that contravene European Law. Ignore them.

    1. Yes, but you have the legal expenses pathway to the final destination of the top of the European Court of Justice to get through.

      If someone loaded wants to come after you, they’ll bankrupt you before you can get there.

      1. I was of course mostly being silly – and trying to demonstrate how laws with no legal basis should be treated with the respect they deserve: none.
        This isn’t the first time that the UK has tried to trump human rights laws, it also wouldn’t be the first time they’d been quashed in the ECHR, or been sat in stasis, unused – knowing full well that’s what would happen if they were used.

        1. No legal basis at present, but yer old mate, Teresa May, is still promising to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights when the Tory government is returned in the next election. She referred to it in her recent putative bid for leadership of the party.

          1. If the Tories get another term after ToryBot v1.0 (Cameron) then quite frankly we don’t deserve human rights.

            You’re not likely to be at the leading edge of suffering when that happens.

          2. The only way to get people to vote for withdrawal from the ECHR, which is what I euphemistically label “highly evolved society protection mechanism”, is to stoke up xenophobia.

            “The nasty foreigners are dangerous – but they cloak themselves in human rights to prevent their just and right punishment”

            I’m thinking of kickstarting organised bus trips from the tory stronghold villages into Central London.  Let the blue rinse brigade actually take a look.

            They should also take a look at UCL’s slavery compensation database – might be a bit embarrassing.  There are a few people in there with my family name – although I hasten to add this is not a story in my family, and if there was money, neither I nor my parents saw a penny, about which I am not sad.  Voodoo cash.

            The Great British Public is so politically naive it makes me weep.  Even Chris Evans’ morning broadcast on BBC Radio 2 has higher substantive political content than the majority of brits.

            Mind you, I could say that for anywhere really couldn’t I?  Fuck it.  I’m announcing today that I am great leader.  Finito.

          3. The fear for the Tories at the moment is that UKIP will split the Tory vote and allow Labour back in. Now that UKIP are showing themselves in their true colours as a party to unite bigots. They have started their usual trick complaining that there are debates which everybody in some fantasised version of middle England wants to have, this time over gay marriage and gay rights, and which it is their responsibility to lead. ‘Cos right-minded people know the gays have gone too far. They are only being reasonable, after all. Who’s next after immigrants and gays? Oh, the irony. Ms May is back to lead a reunited, reinvigorated nasty party.

  3. Assuming this goes forward, can we avoid the defamation zone by clearly prefacing passed on information with something like “this is unverified gossip, but I hear that …”?

    I don’t like it one bit, but if this tyrannical crap gets in, are there precedents for how to avoid being defamatory?

      1. The recent thrust of the UK’s courts to encourage inbound litigation tourism might have something to do with all this.  More cash for the coffers.

        At wiki, a point of view on English defamation law:

        English defamation law puts the burden of proof on the defendant, rather than the plaintiff, and is considered an impediment to free speech in much of the developed world. In many cases of libel tourism, plaintiffs sue in England to censor critical works when their home countries would reject the case outright. In the United States, the 2010 SPEECH Act makes foreign libel judgements unenforceable in US courts if they don’t comply with US free speech law, largely in response to the English laws.[5]

        Not looking good for my “this is gossip” defence.

  4. It’s easy to see a litigation waterfall coming, like with the copyright trolls in the USA.  Litigation by touchpad.

    It sort of strains at the boundaries of the social contract.

  5. But if you and three friends edit a joint Twitter account or blog or Facebook group, you fit the bill. To those who say that a Twitter account isn’t a website, I think they’re erroneously assuming consensus about what is and isn’t a webpage.

    But what about those that say the qualifier “in the course of a business” means it doesn’t make any difference to them one way or the other?

  6. But, an interesting by product of this legislation, is it frees up and makes the “press club” unambiguously an open designation. “By whay right?” becomes the right of the press for any blogger, editor, facebook subscriber, and even >me< (for editing this post!)

  7. Anyone who publishes anything in the UK (which includes blogs able to be read in the UK) is currently subject UK libel law *in theory*. But suing for libel is incredibly expensive in the UK (as is defending yourself). And if you lose you pay all the costs. So there are significant deterrents to invoking that law. I don’t think this is about to change with the Royal Charter.

    The problem we have is that there has been a very large scale betrayal of trust on the part of journalists, police, and politicians. This is our Watergate if you like. The fallout is still continuing with potentially *600* more cases of “phone hacking” [sic] announced last week. The effect of this has been traumatic. Yes we have laws to cover this, but they did not deter a large number of editors and journalists, and they don’t seem to have produced the kind of redress that most people want. The Royal Charter idea (sent in by a member of the public) is designed to provide oversight of current laws. Since what happened seems to have been a failure of oversight on a massive scale, it seems reasonable to have more oversight.
    The Charter is voluntary and at least two high profile editors have said they won’t sign it. And they are free to do so. The Charter provides for the industry to regulate itself, which is a compromise because a lot of people wanted external regulation and oversight.The idea that the British press is “free” is laughable. They can say what they like, so they are free in that sense. I can call the Queen a whore if I so wish and I won’t be put in jail. But the press is largely *owned* by plutocrats who shape what the papers say. Rupert Murdock was at the forefront of this shaping of what UK papers said. Murdock dominated the media in the UK to an extraordinary extent. He corrupted politicians. He decided who papers would support for elections. And his lieutenants sanctioned the illegal accessing of many many cell phones to check people’s messages. This is not freedom of the press, it is control of the press by corporate interests for the benefit of corporate interests. Anyone who still believes in a free press must have forgotten Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent – or never seen it. It’s not free here, or in the USA. We aren’t free – we have the illusion of freedom, but are everywhere in chains.

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