Monday, May 28, 2007

So Much For Thundering

As you will know, Heather Brooke is a journalist, author, and redoubtable FOI campaigner. She also has an excellent blog Your Right To Know.

A couple of weeks ago Heather wrote a piece for the Times on how our draconian libel laws stifle freedom of information (you can read it here). In it she commented on the out of court libel settlement between childcare pundit Gina Ford and website Mumsnet:

"The libel laws are an abomination. They favour rich, litigious bullies at the expense of free expression. Even a website for mothers to chatter on is fair game to this draconian law.

Last week was forced to pay a five-figure sum for comments posted on its chat site. It stood by the comments but this law is such an ass that the burden of proof rests solely with the defendant.

Meanwhile, claimants can make their allegations free from evidential proof. Their opinion is all that counts. They do not have to prove the comments are false. They don’t even have to show any harm to their reputation. I can think of no other area in law in which an individual’s spurious opinion outweighs the greater public good of truth and justice.

The Mumsnet case makes clear how libel affects everyone, not just journalists or those working in the traditional media. More and more of us, thanks to the growing ubiquity of blogs, chat groups and web forums, are vulnerable to this nefarious law. And while big media groups have deep pockets, the individual hasn’t."

Which is something that should seriously worry all bloggers. Especially in the light of what happened next.

Because after a complaint from Gina Ford's lawyers, the Times- the self-styled Thunderer- meekly removed Heather's article from its website. Just like that.

Clearly the Times will have taken expensive legal advice on the whole issue, thus, as Heather says, "rather" proving her point.

So what happens now? Ford's lawyers are seeking to have Heather take her own blogs down, which would be totally outrageous.

In her home country, Heather, the Times, and mumsnet could all plead the First Amendment. In Britain, we're on our own.

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