Over the weekend I wrote up a story for ZDNet on TechCrunch/Michael Arrington losing a libel suit by default. Of itself I’d expect most people who read my stuff to say: ‘Who cares?’ However, there are many an issue here that won’t simply die on the judgment of a court of law. Here’s the background:
Late last week the plaintiff contacted me to say that he’d been awarded judgment in the High Court but that damages have yet to be assessed. It was the first I knew about the case since such issues don’t usually interest me but even so, given the characters involved I knew it was something explosive. Hence I pretty much played it as a straight news story. The last thing I need is to get embroiled in someone else’s lawsuit, however unwittingly!
TechCrunch/Arrington decided early on that the UK was not the place he/they wished to play out this drama. They’re based in the US and thought, rationally or otherwise, that the best place to fight this would be in California. The plaintiff on the other hand lives in the UK and felt, rationally or otherwise, that the UK was the right forum for settling this dispute. The UK currently seems very plaintiff friendly, the US much less so where freedom of speech is a highly prized right but one which is open to abuse. As someone reminded me earlier today – there is no freedom of speech law in the UK per se.
As people I know well can attest, defending libel lawsuits is both a perilous and expensive business. My advice – if you’ve got it wrong – ‘fess up as soon as possible, fix it and move on. The world is a very forgiving place when you do that. In this case and despite a considerable amount of airing in the court of public opinion, TechCrunch/Arrington made the fatal mistake of not acknowledging service of the writ. As I understand it and from their public statements, this closes the door to appeal. In layman’s terms: don’t mess with UK judges – they don’t like it. Whatever the veracity of either side’s argument, simply failing to turn up was not a winning option.
I’m a huge fan of freedom of speech. Without it, there are many things I’d find difficult to parse. The fact that I don’t have some of the freedoms I’d like prevents me from making certain statements and having to dump stories I believe are in the public interest (and not something the public might find interesting- there’s a difference.) At least in those places where my freedoms might be crimped. In my chosen country of residence for instance, one has to be very careful not to lampoon the royal family or you get bitten by the courts. However crazy anyone thinks that is, that’s the law and we all have to live by it or deal with the consequences.
However this raises much broader issues. The UK has been laughed at, demonized, you name it, for being relatively slow in taking up social computing, of which blogging is one such technology. Companies have banned people from using FaceBook, people have been fired for blogging and subsequently vindicated. This will only stir up those embers and that’s sad, just at a time when I was starting to see service professionals become comfortable with what is often a tough media environment. Unfortunately, many simply don’t understand where to draw the line. They confuse and conflate issues without realizing that there are separations to be made. That’s what I expect to see happen in the aftermath of this case. It’s understandable but it’s not the right way. Some might argue the law isn’t the way to go, but sometimes that’s the only recourse.
I’m lucky – I was taught many years ago that if you’re not sure, don’t do it. If you don’t have your factual ducks in a row, don’t do it. Even if you do have your facts straight but are still concerned, lawyer up. For the sake of a few pounds/dollars now, it saves a lot of heartache later. Let’s hope that as blogging and other forms of social computing technology matures, we are able to learn from the mistakes of others. Let’s also hope that even though it is always right to push the boundaries of injustice, wrongdoing and unethical practices, we don’t fall into the trap of becoming the story.