Libel and this site

Some of you think I am too tough in editing out allegations and pejorative adjectives about people in power and in the news. The latest court decision concerning Mrs Bercow’s comment on Lord Macalpine should be a warning. The case has found you can libel someone without even making an allegation, and by just asking a question. I do not edit out opinions and comments I disagree with, and do not seek the shield Conservative Ministers from robust attacks on their actions and words in public office.
I make sure I do not libel anyone with what I write. I try to help bloggers on this site by editing out anything I notice that could be libellous. I could miss something, and you will have to face the music if the person affected wishes to take action.
I would urge you all to make my life easier and give yourselves more reassurance by avoiding allegations or pejorative language. If you have evidence that someone in the news has committed a crime or behaved badly then report them to the authorities. If you have no such first hand evidence then please remember the Bercow judgement. Publishing material here can be treated as if you were publishing in a well known newspaper.

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37 Comments

  1. Posted May 24, 2013 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

    Dear John–What I wrote yesterday was absolutely true and although the company I was tilting at did not appear in a good light it would hardly have been a libel even if my effort were wrong or even exaggerated, which it was not. I have the company’s comments in writing as I said. I am surprised at your wholesale excision. I now hope to say the same thing in the Telegraph but that may be harder still. Sob!!

    Reply ON my own I do not have the means to check out all allegations and to satisfy myself of their accuracy. I may share someone’s view and believe it to be true, but you may have to prove it.

    • Posted May 24, 2013 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

      Dear John–I cannot speak for anybody else but as for myself I assure you I stand ready to prove anything I say, especially in writing and even more especially coram populo as here. Besides, it is not particularly clear, within reason, why you believe you should be protecting us in the first place.

      Reply I do not have the resource or the time to be dragged into any legal action that could arise between posters and offended people.

      • Posted May 24, 2013 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

        Dear John–I ever so sincerely cannot grasp why or how you could be dragged in. Maybe you should say somewhere (though I would hope that it would be a given) that commenter’s views are not your own. You do have something along those lines but of course it only refers to third-party websites and links. Any reason why that should not be expanded?? It seems to me that it is abundantly clear that what you say is in your “Diary” and what commenters say should, within reason, not attach to you.

        Reply I have made clear I publish many v iews I disagree with to make a debate. The main liability of course rests with the poster, but I am the publisher.

        • Posted May 24, 2013 at 5:05 pm | Permalink

          Dear John–As always, I am way behind the times and had thought that a publisher had to sell what he published (at least to have any liability) so I did not think of you as a, or that kind of, publisher with all that that might entail legally. To my mind you were “only” a sort of facilitating conduit. A very welcome one but no more. That said, I concede that I am probably out of date in this electronic age and that you may have reason to be concerned, and of course from your point of view you must have to face with fortitude a vast wall of Bologna every single day.

          • Posted May 25, 2013 at 7:33 am | Permalink

            I’m surprised by that distinction. Surely if an article is held to be libellous then it is libellous whether it appeared in a free newspaper or in a paid-for newspaper, and in both cases the publisher is potentially liable as well as the author?

  2. Posted May 24, 2013 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

    I certainly take your comment on board and myself made a mistake yesterday when we saw footage on C4 and ITV of the atrocity in Woolwich . The footage appeared to be self evident and surely no one could deny its’ authenticity , HOWEVER, the rule of laws states that guilt has to be proved.
    I am grateful for any editing and try not to name names or cross reference anything that may be libelous .My approach to most professional things is objective; I have lived my life this way. As independent commenters we are not covered by insurance which large organisations have the benefit of and any help, whilst not leaning on your expertise in such matters, in checking my comments is welcome.

  3. Posted May 24, 2013 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

    Or you back it up with evidence. For example the 2006 fraud act, section 2 and 3. Very relevant to MPs who plan on reducing the payouts to people who have voluntarily paid into the state pension. After all, not reporting the debts makes that a fraud.

    Or is that MPs will pass a law saying that the state pensions are exempt from the 2006 fraud act? E.g. When MPs are asked they just dodge the question. e.g “That’s not the way it works”. Or they refuse to enter into any discussion of the matter.

    Likewise with MPs who paid back money. They signed a document to obtain the money. So far not a single MP I’ve asked has given any reason why that’s not fraud. They just dodge the question, which is more evidence that it is.

    Then when it comes to the Lords. I’ve had State Secrecy certificates back as to how many days they have walked through security. Just the total for the year. The reason it is then blatently obvious who didn’t attend but still claimed. Why would one of only two people in the UK allowed to, sign a certificate for that? Perhaps its because they were responsible for handing out the money.

    Reply Most MPs who paid back money did so to comply with a retrospective change to the rules. Those who paid back money fraudulently obtained faced trial.

    • Posted May 26, 2013 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

      The problem is all evidence needs to be tested and tried and that also takes mountains of the brassy stuff.

  4. Posted May 24, 2013 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

    I apologise in advance for the pedantry of this comment but, in this context, “judgement” should not be spelt with an “e”.

    • Posted May 24, 2013 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

      James–Unless, that is, the spellchecker is American

    • Posted May 24, 2013 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

      Either spelling is acceptable.

  5. Posted May 24, 2013 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

    “The case has found you can libel someone without even making an allegation, and by just asking a question.”

    Mrs Bercow is not my cup of tea but having read what she reportedly tweeted wonder what our legal system is coming to when it was found to be libelous .

    “If you have evidence that someone in the news has committed a crime or behaved badly then report them to the authorities. ”

    That is of course the correct course of action but it didn’t do the victims of Jimmy Saville any good . Nobody wanted to listen to vulnerable children in/from care homes .

    • Posted May 24, 2013 at 5:39 pm | Permalink

      @ADS: I suspect that you have no idea what legalities ITV Plc. went to in their exposure of Mr Saville (even though he is dead) just in case it libelled someone still living, half the problems the BBC had with their aborted programme (which caused delays in getting the programme to production) was no doubt caused by the need to check everything even more carefully because Saville was stall alive during the pre-production period.

      Deficiencies in any police force investigations are not excuses to flout the libel laws, unless you are 110% sure of your facts – get it wrong and not only can you land yourself in court but you can actually deign justice to the victims you sort to help…

    • Posted May 25, 2013 at 9:12 pm | Permalink

      ADS

      Ms Bercow drew attention to and in effect repeated slander and therefore perpetrated libel. I think the judge got it spot on. The criticism,if any, should lie with the plaintiff for going after her out of many but she is like a moth to a flame is she not?

      • Posted May 26, 2013 at 6:54 am | Permalink

        @Ben Kelly: In saying this let me point out that I am NOT casing any judgement on Mrs Bercow, I would say the same who ever. She has been made an example of because she is a high ranking personality in terms of media publicity – two messages have been given out very loudly – 1/. that repeating a slander/libel is still a crime, even if done via socail media based outside of the country – and, more importantly 2/. that the victim of the libel is innocent of any alleged doings/events/crimes etc.

  6. Posted May 24, 2013 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

    β€œThe case has found you can libel someone without even making an allegation, and by just asking a question.”

    Innuendo has always been enough to found an action in defamation. Mrs Bercow was bound to lose that part of her argument. It was obvious what the intended implications of her tweet were.

  7. Posted May 24, 2013 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

    I am also surprised at the outcome of this trial. Mrs Bercow named names but did not make allegations; the BBC made allegations but did not name names – somehow the two have been conflated at the High Court and Mrs Bercow is being treated as though she made the BBC’s allegations apply to a named individual. This isn’t very fair to her. She should have been judged solely on what SHE wrote. The libel law needs a rethink.

    • Posted May 24, 2013 at 9:42 pm | Permalink

      This is interesting……The judgement surprised me. What surprises me more is that she is not appealing. The implications of this judgement are potentially far reaching and I think think with Leveson very worrying……rather akin to thought crime. (It won’t stop me venting against the Dear Leader though…. πŸ˜‰ )

      zorro

  8. Posted May 24, 2013 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

    John

    It might be worth you adding a comment policy to WordPress so you don’t have to keep reminding people. Email me if you need help, its quite straightforward.

  9. Posted May 24, 2013 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

    Regarding defamation laws you cannot be sued for libel if something is either “true” or your comments are “fair and accurate reporting”. So as long as commentator can provide some evidence to back up their claims from a reputable source it is unlikely that anyone will be sued for libel.

    Alternative the commentator could remove any identifying details and just explain the parts that are immoral/illegal; for example “a company is avoiding paying corporation tax in the UK by buying products from one of their branches abroad in order to move their profits to another country with a lower tax rate”. Any company wishing to sue for libel would first have to prove that this comment was referring to them and such an admission is likely to be a PR disaster because they’d effectively be admitting to widespread tax avoidance.

    Reply Alternatively contributors could go along with the rules of my website to help them get their views published! I am not trying to run a site outing bad companies or bringing down criminals. The papers are better resourced to do that.

    • Posted May 24, 2013 at 5:50 pm | Permalink

      @U5 (and others): As John says… It’s his web site, want to play with it, play by his rules – don’t like that, blogspot.com is that away Sir ==> πŸ™‚

    • Posted May 24, 2013 at 9:47 pm | Permalink

      I can understand your point here John. It is important that we do not in our zeal expose you to any potential ennuis…

      zorro

  10. Posted May 24, 2013 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

    “…avoiding allegations or pejorative language”

    Presumably that will not include calling middle class English people “mad swivel-eyed loons” or in another description by one of those associated with the Conservative party but not himself, in point of fact, of English ancestry, “vile”?
    Presumably English people can continue to be libelled and slandered by those who are not English, with impunity?

    In order to make for a more level playing field, would it not be fairer to make the telling of lies either to influence public opinion or directly as an excuse for executive action, a serious criminal offence? There is far too much of the belief system inflicted on children, or enforced on adults by ‘political correctness’ or continually broadcast by the MSM which is contingent on the most disgusting lies which have never ever been tested in a proper court of law. The law needs to protect the truth as well as innocent parties’ reputations.

    I personally was not surprised by the outcome of the Bercow case, as although I have never studied the law, I did think that the context was too clear to have been credibly deniable; however, as the BBC were responsible for broadcasting the slanderous allegation in the first instance, knowing full well that a search engine would reveal the incorrectly identified politician’s name, I cannot see the difference between repeating that and any other of the slanderous and inaccurate statements made by that agency.

    • Posted May 24, 2013 at 9:49 pm | Permalink

      It should make people think why they did it….

      zorro

      • Posted May 26, 2013 at 7:01 am | Permalink

        @Zorro: Because they were, at that time, like a headless chicken because some anti BBC lobbyists had been ranting on about how unfit the BBC are because they failed to broadcast what they knew about Mr Saville?…

  11. Posted May 24, 2013 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

    I thought I may have fallen foul of this the other day with reference to an 80s by-election. I assumed that you would hold comments back that you thought borderline. I’m rather grateful as even with a hidden name tracking identities is not too difficult if someone did wish to make a case.

    However, I do appreciate that you could use your time better than having to police unnecessary comments, such as mine, and will refrain accordingly.

    reply Thank you. Yes that one is still pending as it is borderline.

    • Posted May 24, 2013 at 9:54 pm | Permalink

      I also recognise that I got a bit close on my Syria post……hence my later self censorship!

      Thank You
      zorro

  12. Posted May 24, 2013 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

    This is the reason why I always use my real name (well, at least the nickname that I am known by), because if anyone wants to take issue with the accuracy of something I have written, they’re welcome to challenge me on it.

    And I will state here and now, that John acts in good faith when he publishes our material, and I wish it to be, that he is absolutely absolved of any blame should there be any error on my part. If I am ever foolish enough to write something I cannot prove, then I am more than happy to carry the can.

    Tad Davison

    Cambridge

  13. Posted May 24, 2013 at 7:17 pm | Permalink

    Is it possible to libel a group. Suppose that I believed, and aserted publicly, that population segment B was on average less gifted than population segment A, and that this was the main reason that segment B achieved (on average) less than segment A. Would that be libellous?

    Our politically correct ‘liberal’ elite would no doubt say that I had no evidence for that. Suppose that I asked for the necessary IQ and aptitude tests to be carried out so that we could determine the matter one way or another. Doubtless the ‘liberal’ elite would refuse such a request. Suppose that I therefore dubbed the ‘liberal’ elite as BLAH (Bigoted Liberals And How). Would that be libellous?

    • Posted May 24, 2013 at 9:52 pm | Permalink

      It’s best not to give people the satisfaction of feeling that they can control what you think…..

      zorro

    • Posted May 25, 2013 at 8:20 am | Permalink

      I think the outcome would partly depend on whether you and the court both had some basic understanding of statistical distributions.

      If what you said implied that any member of group B would always be less gifted than any member of group A, then each and every member of group B could claim that your statement had identified them as being less gifted and therefore defamed them personally.

      And I suppose that a member of group B who had been called to the bar might then be sufficiently persuasive for the libel case to succeed …

      But if you had made it clear that there were statistical distributions of gifts in both groups, and those two distributions overlapped to a very considerable extent but were not identical, so that while the averages were slightly different there were very frequent cases where a randomly selected member of group B was found to be more gifted than a randomly selected member of group A, then it would be much more difficult for any individual in group B to claim that you had defamed him personally.

      In either case you could try to defend yourself on the grounds that your analysis was true, or especially in the second case that it was “fair comment”, representing a view which a reasonable person (like yourself) could hold and which should be a matter for free public debate because of its implications for public policy.

      • Posted May 26, 2013 at 11:49 am | Permalink

        I have a Masters degree in Statistics from Imperial College, although I confess it is 30 years and more since I used it regularly. Roughly speaking, the distribution of the IQs of a population is truncated log normal (an infinite IQ is impractical; that is we have to say ‘truncated’). The log normal distribution has a mean and different populations can have different means. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a huge overlap. As you say, words have to be used carefully – which doesn’t excuse the State for attempting to gag people.

        • Posted May 26, 2013 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

          Then you are well equipped to both express your view clearly and also get the court to comprehend it, if that became necessary …

          My understanding of statistics is also from Imperial but only as part of Mathematics ancillary to Chemistry, so it’s more basic.

  14. Posted May 24, 2013 at 7:33 pm | Permalink

    I understand fully Mr Redwood.

    This site is for you to do with as you wish and I’m only too grateful that you provide it.

    • Posted May 24, 2013 at 9:21 pm | Permalink

      Could not have put it better myself.

    • Posted May 25, 2013 at 9:16 am | Permalink

      Ditto

  15. Posted May 25, 2013 at 10:53 am | Permalink

    Possibly you might be subject to a raid on you office to discover the identity of a pseudonyn, as happened when the previous shadow Home Office minister upset them.
    The wealth of large organisations enables them to close down comment by the threat of unaffordable legal fees.

  • About John Redwood


    John Redwood won a free place at Kent College, Canterbury, and graduated from Magdalen College Oxford. He is a Distinguished fellow of All Souls, Oxford. A businessman by background, he has set up an investment management business, was both executive and non executive chairman of a quoted industrial PLC, and chaired a manufacturing company with factories in Birmingham, Chicago, India and China. He is the MP for Wokingham, first elected in 1987.

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