Getting serious about hyperlocal, part 1: Legal issues

More and more as things progress with The Lichfield Blog it’s becoming apparent to me that hyperlocal has a real part to play in the changing local media landscape. So it’s time to get serious and look at what we need to do if we’re to make a serious contribution to local media. There are three areas that seem to be the most important to me and I’ll cover these in a series of blog posts. This is the first post in the series and it’s about the legal issues we face.

First off, we’re vunerable. All manner of threats are around and could rear their ugly head at any moment. One of these is legal action and recent news that one law firm has created a team dedicated to online comments makes the issue all the more evident.

In Lichfield we are fortunate that most of the posts are written by journalists who have the necessary training to know what they can and cannot write. But then there are comments… We take the ‘see no evil’ approach – comments are open and we provide a reporting feature for any comments that are inappropriate. Anything we think is potentially libellous is removed, but only if we see it or if it’s reported. Posts we deem likely to generate inappropriate comments are pre-moderated which means muggins ‘ere gets to be flooded with ‘please moderate this’ e-mails.

Sometimes we get caught out. Just the other week we had a case where we had to turn moderation on for a particular post because of some really unpleasant comments. What happens when we get caught out and don’t/can’t react quickly enough?

Unfortunately, we have very draconian libel laws in the UK.  The risk is one day we might get some kind of legal action and have to employ the services of a lawyer to help us figure out what to do. When (not if – I’m expecting it to happen one day) that starts to happen our £72.50/mth isn’t going to last long.

What we could really do with is guidance before that happens. Maybe a hyperlocal alliance would be a good way to provide that to all our fellow hyperlocals and bloggers and those considering starting up? It’d help to provide a little bit of security to hyperlocals as we figure out where the future lies.

Such an alliance could provide;

  • Tips on how to avoid action (e.g. when to moderate)
  • Advice on what is and isn’t acceptable in posts & comments
  • How to deal with take-down notices

I’m sure there’s more that could help, but I’ve not experienced it yet (thankfully) so I don’t know! Thoughts welcome…

I checked with lawyer Chris Sherliker (who offers free tidbits of legal advice via Twitter, so follow him) about liability and he warned that the author, owner and ISP could all face legal action if libellous content is posted on a blog. That’s a very scary thought.

And yes, all very good talking about it but what are we going to do? Well, I’m not exactly sure how to go about it. We’ve got to get the legal advice from somewhere and that’ll cost… so how much is it and who funds it? Who’s likely to fund it? Is there someone we could ask to fund it? Could we collectively fund it? Do we allow anyone to access that advice and guidance? What else could we provide? I don’t have the answers but if we club together maybe we can come up with them, so what say you?

Let’s get talking about this. Will Perrin’s hyperlocal alliance group on the Social by Social Ning is a good place to start (I’ve started a legal issues discussion) and let’s get chatting on Twitter too – how about using #HLA? Don’t forget there’s also some good tips from Talk About Local on defamation.

Update: Dan Slee has just published an excellent post on his blog title, “BE LEGAL: Six things a hyperlocal blogger really should know about the law

Update: The backdrop to this post, as mentioned is the far from acceptable libel laws we have to deal with. Paul Bradshaw has written a great article on how you can help change the daft defamation law on online publishing.

12 thoughts on “Getting serious about hyperlocal, part 1: Legal issues”

  1. Good post.

    I have kicked the idea around with Will P and a couple of people about some kind of ‘insurance’ scheme where bloggers who are serious, can pay £x per annum for legal advice. The idea being a number of people could pay in to a kitty which would pay a retainer to a solicitor who could be called upon on advice when it was needed.

    I see it not as a service where I ask should I or should I not do this (what do we do about that now?) but a service where you ask ‘I’ve had a take down notice or a legal threat should I comply, worry, emigrate?’

    If people feel they need a service that checks their output prior to publication are either aware they are sailing close to the wind and should probably not post it anyway or should be big enough to pay for a full legal service.

    We don’t want to become the establishment and have all the shackles that go with it, we are lightweight infantry who can mobilise and deploy quicker than the traditional press but we need to protect ourselves as best we can.

    Common sense when posting always prevails 🙂

  2. Ha! I blog about media law minutes before noticing the Talk About Local post and then notice the epic Philip John’s piece.

    Mike’s point about an insurance policy sounds like the right tree to bark up.

    It’s what the National Union of Journalists already offer to members. Mainly this is in the field of employment law since most good journalists are trained to a high standartd on media law.

    They have to be because they deal with defamation on a daily basis as do hyperlocal bloggers and I know I’ve seen far more incendiary stuff posted online that would ever get printed.

  3. Great minds, Mr Slee, and a great post from you hence why I added the link to it.

    What exactly does the NUJ offer? This ‘insurance policy’ wouldn’t double effort would it? How about hyperlocal bloggers join the NUJ? That might also give them a bit of credibility with local authorities that aren’t as visionary as your own, maybe?

    Glad to hear it James!

  4. I’m a member of the NUJ, but I’m not confident that their legal service is geared up to the new environment of independent local publishing and the particular legal problems that arise from this sort of activity.

    I may be wrong, but that’s my impression.

    I think a separate effort geared to the challenges faced by independent local publishers is the way to go

  5. I need to make the ‘Insurance’ part clear, I do not propose trying to draw up a policy that will cover your costs if you get your backside sued, as you could buy that off the shelf.

    It would be a subscription service that for £x you would get access to a solicitor and advice, subject to acceptable use.

    Very crudely, we all throw say £50 in an envelope with our names written on it and give it to Solicitor X for a years cover. If we have a problem we can call / E-mail and get advice. Each time he gives us some advice he takes £10 out. If he has priced his service right he will break even at the end of the year when we start the process again.

  6. Great find, James. I thought I’d mention that in the Ma Online Journalism session last week with Paul Bradshaw it was mentioned that mySociety have a ‘bank’ of lawyers that they can call upon. Something similar as part of a Hyperlocal Alliance, funded with Mike’s suggestion may be a way forward then.

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