Category Archives: Help & Advice

MA Online Journalism: Law for bloggers and journalists with Paul Bradshaw

Warning: this is a long post, get yourself a cuppa before you start….

Last week I popped along to the Coffee Lounge in Brum for one of Paul Bradshaw‘s open MA Online Journalism sessions. This one was about the law & blogging, something I obviously need to be aware of with The Lichfield Blog. As a publisher myself you’ll probably find more of that angle to these notes.

Before I try and turn my 6-pages of notes into blog post form I’m going to re-iterate Paul’s disclaimers;

  • I am not a lawyer, so the following does not constitute legal advice but an academic overview of law as it affects journalists and bloggers.
  • It appears to be almost impossible to avoid bullet points when talking about law. I’ll let you read the new third disclaimer yourself.

Good, hopefully now you won’t sue me for excessive use of bullet points.

Audit

We started off with an ‘audit’ – shared experiences of law on the ‘net. Key points were;

  • The law covers the articles you write and any user-generated content.
  • If the Police tell you something, that doesn’t mean you can print it – you have to have evidence to back up everything you say. Put simply, don’t trust anything anyone says.
  • The WWW is exactly what it says on the tin – a World Wide Web and as such is covered by global law and the phenomenon known as libel tourism.
  • It’s often the easy fish that get caught. We discussed the case of an Indian blogger who was sued because he criticised TV coverage of the Mumbai attacks while the head of the church, who also criticised the coverage, faced no action at all. It seems that newspapers are easy targets because they’re insured and independents are easy targets ’cause it’s too risky for them to fight back so they’ll settle.

We talked about the risks and concluded that there is always some risk, otherwise you would end up publishing very little. It has to be a calculated risk, though. The Times rejected the MPs expenses story after getting the advice of their lawyers. However, the Telegraph obviously went for it. Some lawyers actually don’t mind a fight and you might find you get differing opinions if you consult them.

Then we talked about what exactly defamation is:

  • it lowers people’s opinion of someone
  • it is without justification (i.e. just an insult for the sake of it)
  • it is calculated
  • it causes the victim to be shunned and avoided (y’know, like when someone in the playground has the lurgy)
  • republishing defamation is also defamation

There is a good list of scenarios provided by the Independent Producer Handbook you can look at, too.

Burden of Proof

Next we discussed the burden of proof. This is an important one. Key points are;

  • The burden of proof is on you as the publisher – you have to prove that it’s not defamatory.
  • ‘Truth’ isn’t always a defence – you can’t just publish something and claim it’s fine because it’s fact, you have to support that with evidence.
  • You need to prove it’s true or one of the following (which I’ll go into later);
    • Fair comment
    • Absolute privilege
    • Qualified privilege

So, who can sue?

  • Living people (yep, dead people can’t sue – go figure!)
  • Companies, organisations
  • Groups of people (though it might be hard for a big group like premiership goalies to sue)

…and who can’t?

Note that some are more litigious than others.

Marc Reeves

We also had a visit from Marc Reeves, editor of the Birmingham Post. Marc gave some good insight into how they deal with defamation at the Post. Being part of the Trinity Mirror group means they have a team of lawyers on the end of a phone in head office at Canary Wharf so they can always check first.

Interestingly, when they receive a notice of defamation they will immediately take down the material in question, to be on the safe side. They’ll also make efforts to get the pages removed from Google as that can be a sticking point in libel cases – just being shown to have made the effort is enough.

We also discussed how newspapers are established targets – it’s quite a common occurrence. Marc said they deal with many cases that cost a few hundred to a few thousand pounds. That’s a lot of mullah to be shelling out!

We went on to some specifics of the law;

  • In England, there is a 1 year time limit on bringing a libel action from the date of publication.
  • In Scotland it is 3 years.
  • Each re-publication resets that time-limit back to zero.
  • Each view of a web page is considered a re-publication so even a lawyer checking the page out for a case is causing that material to be re-published again.
  • The need to keep notes was discussed – because libel action could effectively be brought years after publication it’s important that any notes that you have around the published material are kept in case they are important to the case. We discussed the potential for libel ‘holidays’ where people wait for years to bring action in order to increase their chances of winning.
  • There is a Ministry of Justice consultation going on right now on defamation and the internet and it’s available on Write to Reply. Go add your views!

The Defences

Having looked at what is defamatory and who can and can’t sue we discussed the possible defences to a libel action.

Fair comment

  • Is not malicious
  • Is honest & sincere views
  • Based on facts (that are well known or clearly indicated)
  • Matters of public interest (such as what politicians are up to)
  • Saying “it’s just my opinion” is no defence

Qualified privilege

  • Where there is a moral, legal or social duty or a public interest in reporting
  • This refers to reporting the likes of court hearings and council meetings
  • Reporting must be fair and accurate; missing bits out will land you in trouble
  • Whole court hearings must be reported otherwise you could be found in contempt of court

Absolute privilege

  • This refers to the ability to print everything that goes on in a court hearing or in Parliament
  • Even defamatory statements can be published without the re-publication rule applying
  • This supposedly over-rides everything else including injuctions
  • Contempt of court still applies if you don’t present a fair and balanced view of proceedings
  • You must make it clear a case is ongoing and previous articles about a case should really link to one about the outcome

Reynold’s privilege

  • The defence that despite publishing inaccurate accusations it can be acceptable if it was deemed to be responsible journalism
  • It comes from the case of Reynolds vs. Times Newspapers Ltd where the court established the Reynolds factors

Innocent dissemination

  • This is the “I didn’t see it” defence though as soon as notification of libellous content is found, it should be removed otherwise you may be held responsible
  • It’s important to have Terms & Conditions for commenters that hand over the copyright of whatever they right to you so that you may edit/remove their comments
  • If a person has consented to defamatory material about him or her being published, that is an absolute defence – remember to have evidence though!

Developments

We briefly went through the developments around the law, including the defamation and the internet consultation. See Paul’s slideshow (below) for more.

Contempt

Contempt of court is very important. During an ongoing trial you should be careful what you report, here’s some pointers;

  • Don’t mention too many details about those involved (judge may issue a list of things you shouldn’t print)
  • Do not mention previous convictions of accused or their lifestyle as that could prejudice the case
  • It is illegal to ask jurors about the case or take photos of them during the trial or around the courts buildings
  • It’s important to publish dates of follow up hearings, sentencing and the like
  • Don’t even think about printing stuff about under 18s or family proceedings unless specifically given permission by the courts

Privacy

This is very important. Be wary of;

  • revealing private details
  • filming/recording without consent
  • doorstepping (i.e. just knocking on people’s doors without warning)
  • public spaces may be more protected but it’s still best to warn people
  • obtain signed permission slips if you can or recordings of consent
  • low resolution video may offer some protection

As a general rule, just be respectful of people’s privacy and you should be alright.

Confidentiality

Some things will be covered by confidentiality. These could include;

  • Official Secrets Act
  • Data Protection Act
  • Non-Disclosure Agreements

Copyright

  • Don’t quote from anything not in the public domain unless given express permission to do so
  • Make sure you include sufficient acknowledgements to copyright owners
  • Understand Creative Commons
  • Don’t assume you have the right to publish

Regulation

We touched on regulation, too. Check out the NUJ which aims to promote ethical standards in journalism amongst other things, and also the EFF which seeks to defend the rights of bloggers and citizens in the digital world.

That’s it. If I’ve missed anything important, please let me know, and here is Paul’s presentation;

The Twitter settings update as a lesson in web usability

Twitter went a bit potty today over a change made to the services settings.

Yesterday, Biz Stone, co-founder of Twitter, blogged the change saying,

“Based on usage patterns and feedback, we’ve learned most people want to see when someone they follow replies to another person they follow… however, receiving one-sided fragments via replies sent to folks you don’t follow… is undesirable.”

See it yet? He said most people. That means a majority. It means that some aren’t like that. That means changing it will be bad for that minority.

Consider this change from Twitter to be entered into the 101 of how to piss off your users.

It’s all about choice. Give people choice and they will reward you with their loyalty, respect and recommendations.

Take features away or make life harder and they will scream, shout, complain and generally bang your door down.

The internet will make you accountable for your actions

I wouldn’t normally advocate reading The Sun, but as much as it pains me to do so I need to make a point.

A woman has apparently initiated divorce proceedings against her husband after spotting his car outside another woman’s house, on Google Street View.

“Top media laywer Mark Stephens” was quoted saying, “I suspect the husband’s lawyers will claim it was an invasion of privacy that will cost him his marriage and Range Rover.”

He may well lose his marriage and precious shagg wagon but it’s not Street View that’s brought that cost upon him, he’s done that all on his own.

And here, my patient readers, is where my point comes in.

The internet is an open and democratic medium. Get filmed, photographed or otherwise captured doing something you shouldn’t and you could well face the consequences.

It’s not the fault of the internet, of Google, of ISPs or of web site owners. It’s your fault.

Moaning about having your ‘privacy invaded’ because you got caught humping your cleaner thanks to the internet is akin to complaining that you got caught speeding because you happened to have been followed by an un-marked Police car.

The solution is quite simple: don’t do anything you wouldn’t want anyone knowing about. Especially cheating on your wife!

And guess what, the same applies (even more so, in fact) to companies.

On an almost daily basis my twitterstream contains tweets pertaining to bad customer service. I always worry for those companies. I wish, for their sake, that they’re monitoring Twitter, and the rest of the web.

If not, they are potentially letting their reputation sink lower and lower. As tools like Twitter, Facebook and Get Satisfaction gain traction, more and more people are making themselves heard. Word of mouth as a communication medium has rocketed to new heights.

So, if you’re a business do two things right now.

  1. Smarten up. Don’t do anything you wouldn’t mind the world knowing about.
  2. Keep an eye on what’s happening to your brand online. Failure to do so could result in a seriously damaged reputation.

Reasons to use Twitter: Real life user experience feedback

This is the first of (hopefully) many posts highlighting ways in which businesses can use Twitter. I’ll be trying to use examples whereever possible.

First: Real-life user experience feedback.

Frustration at Google AdSense led @tonypiper to tweet,

Adsense has got very confusing recently.

A great opportunity for the AdSense team at Google to get instant feedback on what people are finding difficult so that they can make some improvements.

There could be lots of people talking about your product or service not just on Twitter but throughout the web. Are you finding them and addressing their concerns? The impact on your reputation either way could be dramatic.

LinkedIn Squatting: Claim a Company for Your Own!

According to LinkedIn, I am now the proud owner of a company.

How so? Because I told them I was.

Why did they believe me? Because they didn’t bother to check.

I gave them an e-mail address that in no way resembling the company’s web address and in return they let me create and play around with the company profile.

As I write this I’m searching around my head for ways that LinkedIn could verify company employees but as yet my brain is returning a 404 (wow, that was geeky).

Luckily for LinkedIn the company is a client of mine and I’m simply in the process of managing their on line presence, which includes making sure we’re in control of LinkedIn.

However, I just went looking for a couple of competitors and found they hadn’t built their company profiles yet. If I was a lesser man I might do it for them with my own “special” twist. Others might not be so kind.

This, if you ask me, is really scary. Every company out there needs to hurry up and get their LinkedIn profile sorted. Otherwise, you might find someone else doing it for you.

On reciprocal links and why you shouldn’t use link pages

Via Search Roundtable, a WebmasterWorld forum post this week asks the question, “should I get rid of my reciprocal links pages?” My short answer: Absolutely!

In fact, links pages themselves are a particularly bad idea, unless they are in context (a corporate partners page, for example).

In the thread, a few posters encourage editing the links directory, leaving only those links that are relevant. Ensuring the links are relevant to your visitors is kind of obvious, but what nobody seems to have touched upon is whether they are actually useful.

If you have a site about widgets then a links page listing other sites that focus on widgets would seem like a logical move, but would it be useful to your visitors? Lists of links is a very blind way of exploring the web, hence why the search engines stole market share from the directories so well.

Much better is to have links to relevant sites in a contextual way, where it makes sense. For example, on a page about custom widgets, links to custom widget manufacturers or examples of custom widgets can be included within the normal flow of content. The links are likely to be much more helpful to the visitors when presented this way.

A couple of posters in the thread talk about a quota for reciprocal links versus one-way links. Using such a system is also a bad idea. The only way links can be completely natural (and therefore arouse no suspicion from the search engines) is to be measured entirely qualitiatively. Using a quota is an attempt at using a single quantative target to match an algorithm that looks at numerous qualitiative and quantitative factors.

If you have a links page, think about whether those links serve the needs of your visitors. If they do, think about how they could be incorporated into the content throughout the site to better serve those needs. Then do what makes the most sense and forget about search engines!

404s, 301s and a smidgen of common sense

My guess is that the reason so many SEOs ask the wrong questions is because they don’t have a technical background. I’m not sure how good Barry Schwartz’ technical knowledge is, but today he’s asked, “404 or 301 Your Old Pages? Which is Best For SEO?

There are two questions here and there’s a fundamental problem with each. I’ll start with the latter for reasons you’ll discover later on.

Asking which option is best for SEO shows the typical SEO mind set; “will it affect my search engine rankings?” It’s a valid concern for any web site when you consider the huge percentage of traffic driven by search engines everyday, but it neglects the most important consideration for any web site owner: the visitors.

I guess I could be sparking a chicken-before-egg debate here but, it’s no good having great rankings that deliver lots of good traffic if the site doesn’t adequately serve the needs of those visitors, because too much emphasis has been placed on optimisation rather than usability. All that effort optimising the site will be wasted because the visitors just won’t convert.

So rather than asking, “what is best for SEO?”, ask “what is best for my visitors?”

This leads us nicely to the first question, “404 or 301 your old pages?” The issue here is that there are old pages that no longer exist and need a replacement.

First, though, what does a 301 and a 404 actually mean? The HTTP/1.1 Status Code Definitions define these as;

301
Moved Permanently. The requested resource has been assigned a new permanent URI.

This effectively means that the page still exists but can be found somewhere else.

404
Not Found. The server has not found anything matching the Request-URI. No indication is given of whether the condition is temporary or permanent.

This tells us that the page that we’ve asked for isn’t available, but not the reason why.

If the page in question is still in existence but has just moved to a different web address (such as a new domain name) then a 301 should be used. If the page no longer exists, though, a 404 status should not be used. This is because we do know the reason why the page isn’t available and so we should use a status code that reflects that.

The status code that should be used is a 410.

410
Gone. The requested resource is no longer available at the server and no forwarding address is known. This condition is expected to be considered permanent.

Now we know that the page definitely doesn’t exist anymore and that we should stop our search for that page. It’s mainly common sense, but you need that technical knowledge of the different status codes, too.

In conclusion then; If you’re going to do business on the web effectively, you need to follow some basic rules.