The internet and the law
BLOGGERS beware. Dave Osler, finance editor for Lloyds List, told The Internet and the Law conference in October of his three-year legal battle after being sued for libel in 2008. The conference, at Goldsmiths, University of London, was organised by the NUJ New Media Industrial Council and the Media Reform Coalition.
Osler, the author of a witty political blog,was sued by Johnana Kaschke, who was then a Respect councillor in Tower Hamlets who had defected from Labour (she is now a Conservative councillor).
Kaschke objected to Osler's recounting that she had been wrongfully arrested by the German police in 1975. (They had suspected her of being a member of the Baader-Meinhof group.) She also objected to comments about her that had been left on the blog.
Osler offered her a right of reply and took down the offending blog. Kaschke continued to pursue her case. And while the case was eventually thrown out, Osler said the case had put him under intense pressure and cost him thousands of pounds. It was struck out by the High Court on the grounds of "abuse of process".
Without the help of Robert Dougans, a solicitor, and William McCormick, a barrister, who represented him pro bono, Osler's costs would have much greater.
Since the Osler case, the Defamation Act has improved matters for journalists. Mark Scodie of law firm Bates Wells and Braithwaite told the conference. The new law introduces a defence of "responsible publication on matters of public interest" and a defence of "innocent dissemination".
However, the internet adds the complication of how far the libel has travelled. If a web site has readers in Russian, the author might be liable in Russia. (The Act includes anti-libel tourism provisions that address this, but they're not in force yet, see below.)
The cap for damages is to be set at £270,000, but journalists can face bills over £100,000 defending a libel action.
Scodie's advice to freelances or other lone operators was: be informed and understand libel laws; have a policy on how you deal with user-generated material (comments placed on blogs); avoid making statements of opinion based on unsubstantiated facts, identify potentially contentious material pre-publication and anticipate potential defences.
He recommended the web site Inforrm's Blog. Finally, if you think you are in trouble, call a solicitor. NUJ members in legal trouble should contact the Freelance Office during office hours and/or the Union's 24-hour emergency legal number. If you are seeking the services of a specialist lawyer other than those the Union normally use, you'll have to go through the NUJ to do this.
Freelances are also strongly advised to consider taking out Imaging Insurance's "Writer" insurance to cover themselves against libel actions, at a discount rate for NUJ members. For details, see here.
And double beware! At the time of writing, the Freelance understands that only a small number of the Defamation Act's provisions have actually come into force. The majority of the Act's clauses are still awaiting implementation by Statutory Instrument. Watch this space for updates.