Nov 2006

Retract and be damned!

A fellow blogger has been threatened with legal action for libel. In the following piece, all names and any specifics are entirely fictional (except the bit about Oliver Kamm which is true). I’ve no intention of writing anything that could identify the blogger, the person making the legal threats or the controversial claims that caused the fuss. That said, I’m going to set the scene…

I’m an occasional reader of Bob’s blog. He’s got a nice way with words. Also, we were on the same polo team in Singapore in the mid 1980s. About three months ago an article appeared in a magazine detailing the behaviour of a well-known businessman. Bob quoted this article in a short blog post and thought nothing further of it. Two and a half months later, Hello magazine backed down and published a retraction. They admitted they had no evidence – beyond hearsay – that Sir Digby Jones had “gotten off” with a goat during a recess at the recent CBI conference.

Bob noted this with interest but was still surprised when Sir Digby dropped him an email demanding that he remove his post citing the offending article. If he didn’t, then legal action would swiftly follow.

Now, because of who I am, my initial response was “Screw the bastid!” Don’t remove the offending post, I urged Bob, until someone is literally holding a gun to your head. It’s probably not worth dying over, but it’s certainly worth getting aggressively self-righteous about. No question there.

What you have to understand is that – in my own weird little world – “suing for libel” is only a notch or two above “mugging old ladies for spare change”. It’s essentially setting the rozzers on someone for calling you names. I mean, when it boils down to it, that’s what’s going on. Yes, yes, yes, there’s a million legitimate reasons right? What if the libel ruins your business or makes you unemployable or upsets your mother…? Well look, I’m not saying that having lies told about you can’t be damaging… even ruin a life. Yes that can happen. And that’s wrong and horrible. But I’m a moral absolutist. You know that by now, dear reader, and whatever the circumstances I think you’re pondscum if you set the police on someone for writing something.

Corporations, incidentally, are fair game. You understand that right? Use whatever means necessary to kick Big Media in the balls. Lawsuits, boycotts, petrol-bombs… whatever’s to hand really. But you just don’t threaten another person with the police for something they say. That should be part of the implied social contract we each have with one another. It’s extremely bad form. Which isn’t to say you should take it lying down. When Oliver Kamm called me a Nazi-sympathiser on a public website the idea of suing for libel would have been absurd. Instead I decided to call him a kook and a tosser and point out that I wouldn’t piss on him if he was on fire and he’s got a stupid head, roughly once every three months for the rest of my life.

None of which is very relevant, but it’s nearly three months since I made fun of Kamm so I wanted to shoe-horn it in somehow.

Anyway, Bob doesn’t want to take down the piece. And quite aside from my “screw you” gut reaction, I don’t think he should either. You see there’s an issue here that needs debating, and maybe even something worth taking a principled stand over. And it’s got nothing to do with whether or not Digby Jones enjoys kissing goats.

The Memory Hole

You didn’t think I’d go the whole month without an Orwell reference now, did you? In Nineteen Eighty Four the memory hole is where all the little bits of un-news get placed when The Party makes a revision. So a war hero who later speaks out against Big Brother not only disappears, but finds himself removed from history. The books and newspapers are all recalled and alterations made. Entire wars get sent to the memory hole.

To the furnace.

I’m not suggesting that this particular instance of alleged libel has a great deal of political or historical import. But while ‘Hello’ magazine have published a retraction in the current issue, they’ve not been required to somehow recall every offending copy and modify it. There’s no army of temps scouring doctors’ waiting rooms as I write this, desperately snipping out the libellous paragraph… removing it from all but imperfect memory.

Similarly, I don’t see why a blog should be forced to alter its past “issues” rather than merely publish a current retraction. Digby Jones isn’t denying that the allegation was made, merely that it’s wrong. Insisting that the thing is erased from history is absurd. Bob should post a retraction and an apology. As a compromise he should also post a prominent link to that apology from the article in question. Insisting upon anything more is using the tactics of The Party.

Initially I tried to argue that expecting Bob to remove his article from the web was oddly akin to asking a big-circulation magazine to do a recall of a three-month-old issue. With google-cache keeping a copy of web content and sites like archive.org doing their thing, it’s clear that Bob no longer has control over the piece once it’s been distributed. It’s unreasonable, therefore, to even ask him to try to “recall” the post.

Once I’d made that argument, however, someone pointed out that google-cache refreshes itself eventually and archive.org tends not to grab blogs. So when I say “sites like archive.org”, which ones do I mean? Off I went to take a look…

And I have to admit there aren’t as many as I expected there to be. Certainly far less than there used to be. I can remember a number of different sites that archived huge chunks of the web and offered specialised indexing and searching. I guess google has killed them all off as only alexa.com seem to be still in the business. Now, the fact that even one such service exists may be enough to prove the point, but I accept that could be reaching a wee bit. So if anyone is aware of any such archive sites or services then I’d be interested to hear about them. Otherwise it’s maybe not a valid argument.

Although I guess I could put my money where my mouth is and set up a mirror of Bob’s site on a webhost in Brazil (actively and explicitly against Bob’s wishes of course so that he has no culpability). Nobody in their right mind – no, not even Digby Jones – would try to sue a resident of Ireland, from the UK, for a minor act of libel occurring on a website in Brazil. Even I don’t have that kind of free time on my hands.

You see, if nothing else, the “libellous” piece is now sitting in the browser-caches of a whole bunch of visitors to Bob’s site. Some people regularly clear their caches, but others don’t. Some people will even save a copy of a controversial page to their hard-drive just to demonstrate the point that once published, Bob no longer has control over what happens to his page.

I admit it… I’m actively searching for a rationale for a gut feeling here. It’s clear that Bob has far more control over his post-distributed content than ‘Hello’ does. Maybe even enough control to make a decent case that removing it from his website will remove it from the web.

But again, I just feel uncomfortable about removing something published months ago in a periodical. It’s insisting upon more than a traditional “public apology and retraction”… it’s an attempt to falsify an historical record. And whatever one may think about Bob’s blog, or blogs in general, there’s something just not right about that.

The trouble with all of this is the fact that bloggers can, and often do, habitually edit past entries for all manner of (usually perfectly innocent) reasons. So maybe it’s all just a load of bollocks really. Nonetheless, suing someone for libel is a low and nasty thing to do. That much is still true.

Posted in: Opinion