Corporal Jones

Considering that the Daily Mail regularly publishes the robust views of its highly paid writers it seems strange that the newspaper and its readers seem so averse to any robust views directed at it. The recent attempt to make me delete an old blog post simply because it was 2nd in the Google rankings for ‘Paul Dacre’ has led to other mildly interesting discoveries.

Firstly, I had never realised that the Daily Mail and Paul Dacre Wikipedia entries were so closely guarded by an editor called ‘Christian1985‘ who is a self-confessed fan of the Mail and Mail on Sunday – writing here:

The Mail on Sunday is my favourite sunday paper, I couldn’t live without it. I don’t believe in the biased derogatory stereotypes about Mail readers. I may be a right wing Conservative supporter, but I feel the accusations made against Mail readers are unfounded and unfair. I am also a very young Mail reader. I am a 21 year old student and have read the MoS since I was about 16. It is a fantastic paper in my view.

So, just the sort of neutral person you want editing Wikipedia pages on the Daily Mail and Paul Dacre. For what it’s worth he has received a lot of criticism for constantly (and dubiously) editing the Daily Mail Wikipedia page – criticism he brushes off by claiming that he is merely defending the page from ‘bias’ and ‘smears’. Someone had added a new section to the Paul Dacre Wikipedia page concerning the ongoing legal threats being made against me. No surprises that this was removed almost immediately by Christian1985 who had this to say about my blog:

I think it is the biggest load of crap I have ever seen and I am entitled to that view. I think it is a junk site…

So, a section on censorship and libel law (something that Paul Dacre has strong views on) is itself censored by a Daily Mail fan – even though the edit linked to Roy Greenslade’s piece on his Guardian blog which is classed as a reputable source by Wikipedia (blogs are not – in the eyes of Wikipedia the Daily Mail, Daily Express, The Sun and even Daily Sport are all concerned reputable sources merely because they publish a print edition – no actual quality assessment is made). I think it is also an interesting example of confirmation bias. Most of my media articles are fairly well sourced but they can be dismissed as junk out of hand just because they happen to be critical of something this editor happens to be a fan of.

In the words of Corporal Jones: ‘They don’t like it up ’em’.*

* Richard Littlejohn manages to cram Dad’s Army into his columns every other week, so I thought I’d give it a whirl.

Also, here is the updated ‘Paul Dacre’ search result:

Paul Dacre will die

Abuse and defamation, part 2

So, I’ve heard back from the lawyers representing Associated Newspapers and it turns out they’re not satisfied with the action I have taken so far (see here and here for the full background). You see, although I deleted the original post and replaced it with a short explanation as to why – in which I was very careful not to be at all defamatory – what the lawyers really want me to do is change the title of the post and the meta description. This is because when you type ‘Paul Dacre’ into Google you currently get this as the second result:

Paul Dacre must dieNow, Roy Greenslade believed that Paul Dacre would have had no knowledge of the legal action being taken in order to remove the ‘seriously abusive and defamatory’ material about him. Obviously I have no way of knowing either way, but what is clear is that the lawyers do not want anyone searching for ‘Paul Dacre’ on Google to be greeted by my considered musings on him. The lawyers have therefore contacted my webhosts for a second time, this time stating that:

We note the page has changed which we are looking into. In the meantime the title and meta description of the site still seriously defames our client.

We require that this be changed as a matter of urgency.

As many people have pointed out: the title and meta description (whilst abusive and arguably completely tasteless / out of order etc) is in no way defamatory of Paul Dacre. It kind of staggers me that they are still claiming otherwise. In defence of my webhost, they are in a tough position, they don’t like asking me to edit this post, but at the same time the lawyers are leaning on them with the threat of legal action if I don’t.

The worst thing is that as the author I have had no direct contact with the lawyers (I don’t even know their name) taking umbrage with my words and my request for a contact email address for them has been turned down by my webhosts – although they have offered to pass on my email address to the lawyers. It is plain to see that the UK system of libel law is completely broken when it comes to Internet content. My webhosts did not write, edit, publish or even know about the existence of that post. They were my words, chosen by me, published by me and I should be responsible for defending them. Any defamation or abuse or offense was caused by me and should be answered by me.

Therefore, the lawyers should be required to contact me as the person solely responsible for that content (as in the US). Instead – and this really works in the favour of the financially powerful – they can simply send a nonsensically vague threat to a webhost who doesn’t have anything invested in the post or the subject who will simply ask the end user to remove it in order to avoid being sued (no matter how unlikely or unrealistic this outcome is). They can just claim defamation where none exists and they know the webhost is highly unlikely to call their bluff. Essentially the rich and powerful media organisation can silence any UK hosted blogger without even needing to contact them directly.

Isn’t this an awful long way away from what the Press Complaints Commission is able to do when it comes to real defamation carried out by newspapers? Indeed, the Daily Mail have editorialised in the past about the importance of separating the PCC and indeed newspapers from any being on the wrong end of any kind of legal restraint or financial punishment:

The all-party Commons Culture Committee report is to be commended for accepting that self-regulation is the best way of policing Britain’s newspapers and for identifying many of the threats to Press freedom.

These include the scandalous fees charged by lawyers in no-win no-fee cases, the libel tourism that stains the reputation of British justice abroad, and the Kafkaesque world of secret super-injunctions.

True, we disagree with the MPs’ suggestion that the Press Complaints Commission should impose fines on errant newspapers.

This would inevitably involve lawyers and result in protracted, expensive disputes rather than the quick, cheap service the Commission now provides

Indeed, Paul Dacre has argued that no-win no-fee lawyers are extremely damaging to press freedom because it encourages people to sue newspapers for recourse rather than seeking out the useless PCC (although Dacre laughably argues that ‘self-regulation is the most potent form of regulation’). Dacre argued that the Conditional Fee Agreement system was being ‘ruthlessly exploited by unscrupulous lawyers’ and as reported by the Press Gazette:

He said the risk of being faced with a huge costs bill had forced newspapers to be more risk-averse. CFAs, he said, were a “lethal weapon in crushing press freedom”.

“Every day we are not going quite as far as we used to and we are settling things even at the expense of paying disporportionately high damages not to go to court,” Dacre said.

“The problem is the provincial press – they do not have the money to do any of this. The money we could lose in one case could bankrupt a provincial newspaper chain.”

And here I am, so powerless in the face of a legal action threatening my webhost that I cannot even be in the position to be bankrupted by an unnecessary libel case because they won’t even contact or sue me directly. My freedom is being crushed by forces I cannot even engage with. Even if I had the honour of being directly sued then Associated Newspapers know full well that I don’t have the funds to pay for a lawyer to defend me and I certainly could not afford to lose.

If Paul Dacre does know anything about this case – or he finds out about it somehow – then if he doesn’t tell the lawyers to back off then he could be accused of acting with astonishing hypocrisy. Unless, of course, you look at what Paul Dacre has said in the past about Conditional Fee Agreements (the no-win no-fee system) and believe that his problem with such a system is not its impact on freedom of speech, but rather that it effectively enables – for the first time – ordinary people the chance to take newspapers to court for libel because they can afford to lose (as the lawyers take on the financial risk rather than the client). This means that the little guy can bite back for a change, which is obviously bad for an industry that repeatedly makes stuff up about people. If this is his viewpoint then of course he is going to have no qualms sending in the kind of lawyers who he might describe – when acting on behalf of the little guy – as ‘rapacious… greedy, I think they are unscrupulous.’

CFAs are only really bad because perhaps the Daily Mail thinks that only the rich and powerful have the right to intimidate people and ‘crush’ freedoms?

Anyway. I have decided to amend the title of the troubled blog post and change the meta description to something I hope the lawyers find acceptable:

Paul Dacre will die

Paul Dacre will one day die. When this day comes, we can finally write what we like about him.

No defamation – not even any abuse – just statements of fact. If they do not find this acceptable I will consider switching my hosting to the US, putting the original blog post back up with the original title and meta description and I will then wait for the lawyers of Associated Newspapers to contact me directly.

[PS: any donations gratefully accepted]

Press freedom

The United Kingdom is lucky to have a free press. At least in theory. However, freedom is not in itself a good thing. Freedom can be abused in any number of ways, which is why in most instances the government retains the right to take away the freedom of those not using it appropriately. In the case of newspapers we are constantly told that the freedom of the press is paramount – this is why no government dares regulate the press with David Cameron the latest Prime Minister to praise the PCC for being a wonderful example of self-regulation. Except that it has utterly failed to regulate the press in any way.

The press is free to pursue any stories that they want, just as the public is free to purchase any newspaper that prints the kind of content that they are interested in. The press are free to criticise any aspect of the political system, but they are also free to tell us how to vote and to lie about important issues, run smear campaigns and generally fight for a political end that suits their own purposes. In real terms the press is only free to be moulded by the free market and free to be the plaything of powerful owners.

The only defence the newspaper has for its behaviour is freedom. Freedom of the press seems so paramount that it is raised as an unquestionable defence as soon as anyone raises a critical eyebrow towards the collection of putrid paper that passes as a newspaper industry in the UK. As soon as press freedom is questioned we hear the same tired arguments about how it is vital for the press to be free to hold politicians, corporations and powerful individuals to account. The beauty of this argument is that just occasionally this is true.

It is also a complete nonsense when you consider what newspapers actually spend the vast majority of their time doing (and how many of them actively work in the interests of politicians, corporations and powerful individuals or are indistuingishable from them). As the Daily Mail notes today when gleefully reporting that Max Mosley has lost his bid to ‘gag the press’:

Today’s judgment observed that the private lives of those in the public eye had become ‘a highly lucrative commodity’ for certain sectors of the media, and publication of news about such people contributed to the range of information available to the public.

The dissemination of such information was ‘generally for the purposes of entertainment rather than education’ but it undoubtedly benefited from the protection of ‘freedom of expression’ rules.

You then scroll to the right-hand side of the screen and see what the judge is referring to – and what the press is doing with its freedom:

This is a product of the free market press, a press that exists to make profit rather than inform a population – which is why we have such a poor democracy: our press serves only to empty our pockets rather than fill our minds with the information we need to be informed citizens. However, the free market only functions to keep alive those newspapers that have a large enough customer base. We get crap newspapers because enough of us want crap newspapers. We get crap governance because not enough of us are prepared to do something about it.

Almost every public debate is reduced to mindless simplicity. Max Mosley makes a hugely valid point that people deserve the right to privacy and the press should respect that right when the ‘news story’ is not in the public interest. Max Mosley is then said to be attempting to ‘gag the press’. He isn’t. He’s just pointing out that if the press had to respect the genuine privacy of others they might have to work bit harder to find stories that are actually in the public interest, rather than simply of interest to the public.