Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Labour Party Conference 2010: Bloggers 4 Labour fringe

Last Monday I was a member of this panel at the conference fringe chaired by London Labour MEP, (and blogger) Mary Honeyball.  I was first to speak then Islington Councillor and head of David Miliband social media campaign, Jessica Asato; the popular website Labour List’s acting editor, Mark Ferguson (who despite a dare did not appear in the supposed atypical male blogging attire – boxer shorts and dressing gown) and Labour “Social Media Tsar”, Kerry McCarthy MP.
There were around 100 people present in the fringe.  Many of whom were furiously blogging, tweeting and facebooking as we spoke.  There was even a few die-hards writing notes with pen-and-paper!
I went first about the legal perils of blogging and how Alex Hilton, Dave Olser and I have lived in “interesting times” for the past 3 1/2 years.  Since my case and Alex is still “on-going” (although in its final stages hopefully) I was a little circumspect about what I could say. 
I did warn bloggers that they must be mindful that it only costs £75 for someone to make a claim (serve a writ) for libel no matter how seemingly ridiculous the claim.  If you are in receipt of certain benefits it is even free.  You could spend thousands of pounds in legal costs (and years of your life) trying to get such a case kicked out with no guarantee you would ever be able to reclaim any of your costs. 
There are a few things to safeguard yourself - such as if you make a somewhat controversial post or comment on something you see on a web site - then save a screen print of it.  If you allow comments then make sure you do indeed moderate them.  If you get a complaint - take down the post until you get advice. 
Some say that the best posts are written late on a Friday or Saturday night after a “few” drinkies – but it is best to post only in the cold harsh light of the following day.  No matter how brilliant you thought it was at the time.
It is not all doom and gloom.  There were a number of occasions of “high comedy”.  Such as when Dave Osler "Ex-punk. Ex-Trot. Unchanged attitude problem" (definitely not a New Labour Supporter)" had to stand up in chambers and respectfully address the bowler hat wearing and MCC tie judge as “Master”.
Check out top legal blog “Jack of Kent” for fuller details of case's.
Next, I spoke about my cunning plan to “drive a wedge in the Coalition by social media”.  Blogging is usually driven either by the top or the bottom.  There are a number of high profile national individual or party blogs with widespread readership and interest.  There are also a huge number of smaller local and personal blogs with a small number of readers.  There is a gap in the middle to exploit. 

I wanted to encourage a Labour movement family blog in every locality.  In London this could be on a borough or regional basis. Run jointly by the local Labour Party and the affiliated trade unions.  A campaigning and reporting blog which will primarily be aimed and used to demonstrate to the 3 million trade union affiliates (and others) that the responsibility for the massive cuts in services and benefits that we face are down to the CONDEMS – and no one else. 
(I did mention that this wasn’t probably the most sensitive time to mention the further political mobilisation of trade union members!).  
Next was Jessica who was able to tell us what it was like to run a national mass new media campaign.  She suggested that there should be a fund for bloggers who face legal action and we need to do something about vile misogynistic anonymous commenter’s (which Mary concurred)

Mark is in the best tradition of Labour bloggers – enthusiastic, knowledgeable, cynical yet amusing.  He will make a fine editor of Labour List as long as they do not run out of money.

Kerry is a total new media enthusiast who wants to use this medium as a new means to communicate our traditional Labour values to the real wider public.   

Mary noted that she “was very pleased by the number of serious bloggers in the audience Councillor Stephen Cowan, Jon Worth, Tracey Cheetham, Mark Nottingham, Colin Ellar and the increasingly well regarded Political Scrapbook”.

There was a very good Q&A from the audience and since no-one mentioned my grand design for local Labour movement blogging, I assume that everyone agreed that it was a wonderful idea - or were too polite to disagree. 

Mary gave all us panellists at the end a very lovely thank you card and a little pressie (see – bloggers do have manners!). 

My pressie was the DVD of “A Very British Coup”.  Which perhaps I ought to send on to our “Red Ed” to prepare him for what might happen when he does become PM!

Many thanks to Mary and her team for all their hard work for what was an enjoyable and instructive fringe.


andy newman said...


"If you allow comments then make sure you do indeed moderate them. "

I am sure that you have studied this, but my understanding of the judgement on Alex Hilton's case is that pre-publication moderation actually exposes you to greater risk, as you have personally made an editorial decision.

Relying upon the precedent of the Betfair case, it would seem safer to say that you only provide a message board service, which you can only do if you don't have pre-publication moderation.

I am not a libel lawyer, but it seems the advice you are giving here is contrary to the thrust of Katchke v Hilton, and the Betfair judgement.

John Gray said...

Hi Andy

I should have made a health warning about this. I moderate comments mainly to stop trolls posting abusive nonsense. Yet I see blogs who also moderate comments allowing stuff which to my mind is clearly libellous. Sooner or later they will face being sued I think.

Let me give my (completely untrained) stab at the Alex's judgement and your blog which does not vet comments first. I don't think that you are out of the woods by not having pre-publication moderation. Alex actually lost his strike out application since there was a dispute about facts which would have had to be settled by a jury if there had been a trial. I think you could face a very similar problem.

Probably best to contact someone like “Jack of Kent” who knows what they are talking about for some advice on this?

andy newman said...

I have my own solicitor thanks.

I agree Alex did not get a strike out because there was a question fo fact to be decided, that could justify the case going to a jury.

But on the issue of law, the judgement was indicative that pre-publication moderation could make your position worse.

I am not saying that having no pre-aproval moderation is a defcne, but it may be the more cautious option; and the regime of pre-approving comments may make your situation worse if you use editirial control to allow a libellous comment to appear.

John Gray said...

Hi Andy

As the yanks would say "this is above my pay grade" but no I don't think so.

I think that interpretation in the judgement refers to the problem Alex had since he "corrected" some posts for spelling and grammar.

If you "allow" a comment that is clearly libellous to be published then you are going to be in trouble. But if you take swift and appropriate action when you get a complaint about something that was unclear at the time then no I don't think so. I think moderating does protect you.

I am (of course) a great believer in "cock up" theory. If a clearly libellous comment is posted on a un-moderated blogs such as SU when there is evidence that other comments had been removed or moderators had posted other comments on that that post then I think you leave yourself open.

Unless you "moderate" - then this is I think over time likely to happen.

Of course the real answer is that the law needs to be changed since it does not matter how daft the complaint you could still get stupid writs served against you.