Friday, July 07, 2006

Blogs and libel

People are starting to notice what's being said on these things. The rather chilling advice of 'friends of Prescott' (now there's a club that could meet in a phone box) was to "sue or close down" websites naming names. Tom Paine has mused that libel cases may prove to be the end of the British blog. He specifically names Guido as at risk, since his readership is now larger than Private Eye's. There are two reasons why British political bloggers shouldn't worry, and one why they should. The bad stuff first.

Libel is best used as a threat. Establish a reputation for litigiousness and people will hesitate before attacking you, no matter how well-founded their attacks might be. Robert Maxwell did this to great effect in the 1980s, and George Galloway does the same thing now. However, for this to be effective, the subject of the defamation must have deep pockets, and no sense of shame. This is a shorter list than it used to be. Tom writes about 'wealthy supports of Labour' funding actions. I'm not sure this is a problem: it is not possible to defame 'Labour' only individuals. If a Labour politician received financial contributions to fight a legal case, that would be as big a scandal as whatever he was suing. It is a worry, but at present no more than that; and there is better news as well.

The first is the man of straw point. Since very few bloggers have any money, the suer must be prepared for the fact that he will not even recover his own costs, let alone damages. So he'd need to be incredibly vindictive - a point frowned on by judges and juries alike.

The second will principally be of comfort to the Devil's Kitchen, who seems a touch concerned that it is "unlikely that any jury would agree that repeatedly calling Prescott a fat, ignorant, corrupt, sexually-aggressive cunt is "fair comment" No they probably wouldn't. But I'm pretty sure that this is 'vulgar abuse' instead, so that's all right. Bloggers who like to insult and be generally rude about their targets have little to fear from the libel courts.

The final point is that the other preferred weapon of the legal bullies, the injunction, has been proved to be ineffective over blogs. When Guido published the fake sheik's photo it was in spite of an injunction against the British press doing any such thing. But Blogger is a US company, and it's legal representation is in the Cayman Islands. British injunctions have no legal effect, as Ferrer's were forced to accept.

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