Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Bloggers Beware

Blogs and their related video based versions ‘vlogs’ remain a popular way for individuals, organisations, and companies to communicate with others. Blogs are often linked to other networks, such as Twitter or LinkedIn; new content can be promoted to followers and friends. It takes minimal effort to produce a professional looking blog and generate a number of regular readers.

The most popular platforms are WordPress, Blogger, and Tumblr, and are designed to be easy to use. No programming or technical expertise is required. A variety of sophisticated applications known as ‘plug-ins’ can turn a blog into a shop front, an interactive company advert, a way for a school to reach out to alumni, or even a membership only discussion site. With over 42 million blogs on WordPress alone (2012 stats), the number of blogs available is staggering. Of course, only a tiny number are controversial or problematic but there are potential legal issues around inadvertent or intentional misuse.

The worry for some commentators is that so-called hyperlocal websites/blogs are replacing the rapidly decreasing independent local press ‘slowly and intermittently’. However, trained journalists are now being replaced by anyone who has access to the internet. Through 192.com subscriptions, freedom of information requests, the relaxation of the filming/reporting of public meetings, ordinary people are able to read, comment and make assumptions about figures in authority. All this information – both good and bad – can be made public on blogs and has ensured a number of cases involving blogs and harassment.

The judge in Coulson v Wilby [2014] EWHC 3404 (QB) was careful to maintain the balance between civilian freedom of speech and the “utterly oppressive” personal abuse by the harassers. H had written two articles on his blog accusing R of covering up for child abusers, lacking any sense of decency, morality or integrity and being a known and habitual liars. Therefore it was held that W and H had pursued a course of conduct that amounted to harassment under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 s.1 – the on-going publication on a website of their names, in the knowledge that it would inevitably come to their attention, constituted harassment on at least two or more occasions.

The second case is a good example of hyperlocal citizen journalism gone very wrong, and has been widely reported in the press. Thompson v James [2014] EWCA Civ 600 and its earlier manifestations, involved the chief executive of a local authority and an aggrieved local tax payer. T had started a blog on which she posted material highly critical of the local authority. Imputations of corrupt behaviour led to the blogger being sued for libel and having to pay substantial damages. The court investigating the term ‘slush fund’ found that it was indeed defamatory in the context of T’s blog.

These cases would suggest that in future judges will take a dim view of bloggers airing grievances and making unsubstantiated public accusations about authority figures. By their very nature, blogs are usually collections of longer statements and so it is harder to defend actions when libellous material has been published over a period of time. Rather than journalists or publishers making a judgment about whether they are liable for defamatory statements, the less experienced, and perhaps unwitting public is exposed to these risks. Therefore, every blogger should be aware of their liabilities, whether or not they are undertaking investigatory blogging.    

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