Tuesday, April 27, 2010

So farewell, Google Ads

I've dropped the Google Adsense link from the side of the blog.

No great hardship, I wasn't going to retire early at the rate things were accruing.

The final straw came when one of my final-year students Josh Halliday screengrabbed and tweeted my blog, with a no-win, no-fee defamation lawyer at the top of the ads.

They've been on there for some time, betraying the fact that Google Adsense has no sense of context, or irony for that matter.

There was also the small issue of a competitor consultancy pitching up on the blog too.Not good business.

Anyway, Mr Halliday has suggested Addiply as an alternative, so I'll check that out and see if they can have me putting my feet up at 50, which is sooner than I care to contemplate.

Paxman gets Paxoed by the man from Plaid

Lovely clip from Newsnight.

Slightly sneering reference from Paxman to Eurfyl ap Gwilym's 'august' position as deputy chairman of the Principality to start off.

What follows is a beautiful example, as an interviewee, of how to deal with the aggressive interview.

Know your stuff, stay calm, and get your digs in when you can.

Eurfyl to Paxo: "Do your homework."

Paxo (truculent): "I have done my homework." (sound of shuffling papers as he finds that, actually, Eurfyl is right)

Eurfyl is obviously Wales's very own Vince Cable.

Post Script. If traffic to this blog since I posted the above is anything to go by, Mr ap Gwilym is an electoral smart bomb that Plaid could do to drop a little more often between now and election day.

With all three of the main parties today accused by the Institute of Fiscal Studies of being too vague in where they will make cuts after the election, an economist who knows what he is talking about would seem to be just what they need.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Jack Straw's Soapbox Blog

Take a look at the blog by one of Jack's self-described 'bag carriers' as Mr Straw tours the country with his soapbox speaking to, and taking questions from, the public.

In the interests of political impartiality (not that a blogger needs to be) if the other parties can point me in the direction of something as entertaining, I'll link to it too.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Tories and Lib Dems commit to libel reform too

Both the Conservatives and Lib Dems have included libel reform as a manifesto commitment.

Conservatives: "We will review and reform libel laws to protect freedom of speech, reduce costs and discourage libel tourism."

Lib Dems say they will: "Protect free speech, investigative journalism and academic peer-reviewed publishing through reform of the English and Welsh libel laws - including by requiring corporations to show damage and prove malice or recklessness, and by providing a robust responsible journalism defence."

So it's a commitment by all three main parties, with the Lib Dems being the most specific. Who will deliver though?

Monday, April 12, 2010

Labour's libel reform commitment

Labour has included libel reform in its manifesto.

"To encourage freedom of speech and access to information, we will bring forward new legislation on libel to protect the right of defendants to speak freely. "

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Election law

Well, they're off, so here's a brief rundown of the legal problems that can arise when reporting elections.

Firstly, libel, it's always with us, but elections are that special time when candidates lay into each other with abandon and occasionally say something defamatory. Remember it is no defence to say you are simply reporting what someone else said (but see below). Anyone who repeats a libel is potentially liable for it and a defamed candidate may decide to sue the relatively wealthy media outlet that has repeated the libel rather than the relatively poor opponent who originated it. Beware accusations of racism, fascism and plain old lying.

However, if you are reporting remarks made at a public meeting, or press conference, then you have a defence of qualified privilege, so long as you are reporting fairly, accurately, on a matter of public interest and without malice. Don't get overly worked up about malice - the malice of the speaker does not 'infect' your report of their speech and has never yet destroyed a defence of qualified privilege mounted by a media organisation.

False statement about election candidates. Section 106 of the Representation of the People Act 1983 makes it a criminal offence "to make or publish a false statement of fact about the personal character or conduct of an election candidate, if the purpose of publishing the false statement is to affect how many votes he/she will get."

The false statement must be statement of fact, not opinion. It is a defence to show at the time of publication you had reasonable grounds for believing the statement to be true. A journalist who published false claims that a candidate was homosexual was fined £250 in 1997. Note that it is no longer defamatory to say that someone is gay (unless it implies they are dishonest by concealing their true sexuality) but it would contravene this law. The reason being that if the voters included those whose religious beliefs cause them to hold anti-gay views, then such a statement could affect turnout for the candidate.

The 1983 Act also makes it an offence to publish a false claim that a candidate has withdrawn from the election if you know the claim is false and it is being made to promote the election of another candidate.

Impartiality of broadcasters. The Ofcom code and BBC Editorial Guidelines have detailed guidance on achieving impartiality. Several radio stations have been fined by Ofcom after presenters declared political allegiance on air.

Exit polls. Section 66A of the 1983 Act makes it an offence to publish the results of an exit poll before polling has finished. The reason being if the exit poll reveals a runaway winner it may discourage people from voting an thwart the democratic process. It is also an offence to publish a prediction of an election result if it is based on such a poll.

Election counts. Admission to the count is the responsibility of the returning officer. There is no national media policy, so best make contact early to make sure of arrangements for the night.

Friday, April 02, 2010

Libel law giveth and it taketh away

By now I'm sure those of you with half an interest in libel law will have heard news of Simon Singh's successful appeal in the action brought against him by the British Chiropractic Association. A very good summation of the hearing and what might happen next can be read in The Times report of the case.

To sum up, very briefly, Simon Singh, a science writer whose publications include the excellent Fermat's Last Theorem, wrote an opinion piece in The Guardian in 2008 in which he alleged the BCA promoted 'bogus treatments' for childhood conditions like asthma, colic and earache.

The BCA sued him for libel and in an earlier hearing in the High Court, Mr Justice Eady said that Singh's article had contained assertions of fact and so he could not use the defence of 'fair comment' which normally protects statements of opinion.

Singh might have given up then as his legal bills were already soaring, but he fought on to appeal that point, that he should be allowed to use fair comment as a defence. And that is what he won yesterday, the Court of Appeal said he ought to be allowed to use fair comment as a defence.

The judgement is interesting for a number of reasons, but I particularly liked phrases such as: "This litigation has almost certainly had a chilling effect on public debate which might otherwise have assisted potential patients to make informed choices about the possible use of chiropractic." And that in suing Singh personally and rejecting an offer of an article in reply from the Guardian "The unhappy impression has been created that this is an endeavour by the BCA to silence one of its critics."

The full judgement is beautifully crafted and has been put up on Scribd by journalism.co.uk as part of their coverage of the case.

Heartening thought the judgement is, it's taken two years and £200,000 to get this far and it's only half way. The ball is in the BCA's court. It can go back to trial, with Singh allowed to use fair comment, it can appeal to the Supreme Court or it can drop the case. As the appeal court judges said, this is no way to pursue scientific debate.

The problem is that Simon Singh is the tip of the iceberg. He is the brave writer prepared to devote the time and cash to the battle. But for every Simon Singh there are hundreds of publishers who drop articles apologise and pay out of court simply to avoid the ruinous expense of a libel action.

Justice Secretary Jack Straw, to his credit, has begun to do something about this and had introduced reforms into Parliament that would cut 'success fees' for no-win, no-fee lawyers. This is the system where a lawyer who takes on a case on a conditional fee - no-win, no-fee - can be awarded 'uplift' - a success fee if they win the case. This means, dependent on how much uplift the court awards, they might double the fees they charge.

Now the order introduced by Straw has been voted down by a committee of MPs. Straw is hopeful it might be revived when it comes to the Commons.

Somewhat strangely, one of the MPs who opposed the order was Chris Mullin, a former journalist of great repute. He said he felt lawyers would not take on tough cases any more.

This is a much more important issue for the regional press. I travel a lot talking to regional editors and they tell me that as much as 90% of the libel threats they get are coming from CFA lawyers and that in the vast majority of cases they settle rather than face the crippling costs of an action.

Straw's reform would have cut the fees that CFA lawyers could expect to get. This would make fighting an action more realistic as it would drive down costs.

For the regional press the issue of the potential cost of a libel action remains the most pressing concern and until that is addressed the chilling effect of libel will suppress freedom of expression.