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:
Now, 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]