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BBC Moderation, The Law and "Censorship" Part 1: Defamation

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Paul Wakely Paul Wakely | 12:30 UK time, Wednesday, 4 March 2009

I'm the producer of the BBC Central Communities Team, which means I oversee the day-to-day moderation across most of the BBC's social media sites such as message boards, community sites like 606 or blog comments (like those some of you will hopefully leave below).

Moderation is the most contentious part of managing social media services, and is frequently viewed as simply an attempt to stifle free speech. This is the first of three posts about the legal issues that arise when moderating the BBC's social media sites. The feedback we get suggests that a lot of contributors lay the blame for removing their comments squarely at the feet of the BBC but like everyone else in the country, the BBC has to comply with UK laws, and the comments and posts that the BBC receives and publishes are subject to them.


Caroline Langrishe as Georgina Channing in the third series of 'Judge John Deed'

The first legal concern is defamatory content. Defamation encompasses both slander and libel.

Briefly slander is a spoken defamatory comment and libel refers to comments in written or permanent form such as broadcasts and posts on the internet. A defamatory comment is one that lowers the reputation of an identifiable person or company in the eyes of right thinking members of the public.

The subject of libel is much in the news at the moment as newspapers are arguing that the cost of defending libel actions in the UK is a threat to press freedom.

Of course, as an internet publisher the BBC tries to avoid as far as possible publishing any defamatory comment, and the various types of moderation we use are intended to limit the risks of publishing contributions from the public.

The BBC's moderation teams receive thousands of contributions each day. When we come across ones which we consider potentially risky, then we have to assess the evidence to support them, and sometimes remove them.

This isn't an easy job, particularly where users are referring to - and sometimes extrapolating from - stories they've read in newspapers or on other websites. Just because something has been published elsewhere, is no defence to a libel action. Websites, blog posts, newspapers and (ahem) major public service media organisations can all be the source of libellous stories, so if you repeat them elsewhere there is a risk you could be posting defamatory content.

Finally, I should point out that we don't just remove this material for our own protection. It is possible that legal action can force publishers and ISPs to hand over the details of the contributors who posted the material so that they can make a claim for damages against the individual who made the post. So, please remember that sometimes the moderators might just be on your side.

In Part 2, I'll look at contempt of court.

Paul Wakely is Content Producer, Future Media & Technology.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    We could really do with making a version of the online legal course all BBC employees have to do available to the public - I'm not saying everyone will use it but it could be useful to some.

  • Comment number 2.

    I think you'll find that a large amount of complaints are due to the inordinate amount of time it can take for the comments to actually get moderated!

    Does it really take an hour and a half to read a dozen words?

  • Comment number 3.

    With regard to this expression 'press freedom' used by so many, along with 'freedom of speech', one needs to ask "just what constitutes to right to complete freedom?".

    People can be taken away for punishment or treatment if they 'are a danger to themselves or other people' or if serious mental or physical damage is done as a result of someone not telling the truth in public. This though may be accidental or deliberate and the cases vary accordingly.

    If the papers or other media outlets stop and think, and ask themselves first "will this cause unacceptable harm to anyone? or 'is this portrayal by picture or word just not going to benefit anyone in the long run? then rather than rushing something through for the sake of a deadline, lives may be saved in many cases both emotionally and physically.

    This in turn will put less pressure on the judicial system, the NHS, and time to be gained from loss of work uneccessarily, along with the essential services from what occurs when a 'snowball' effect happens.

    The fact that the BBC has moderators is excellent and what a pity the same is not available for the internet as a whole to protect children and vulnerable adults.

    Thank you BBC - keep up the good work and may it apply more to the programmes too.

  • Comment number 4.


    It is not libel or defamation if the comments are true and most people only have the internet and the press in general, to make their comments.

    These comments stimulate debate and alert the public and stop the authorities and regulators claiming that they didn't know.

    The law has been formulated in such a way to reduce the opportunity to expose wrongdoing by appearing to be evenhanded. Nonsense.

    We are witnessing a total collapse of the economy and the impoverishment of millions by the combined gambling of a few thousand bankers and nobody is being held accountable. The only ones who will be able to withstand the mayhem, are the very bankers who created the problem in the first place and the politicians and regulators who get paid well above most people.

    These same people, do not want any of the responsibilty for which they claim their higher incomes and privileges.

    They are either incompetent or corrupt or both and they should be made to account for their failures.

    The corrupt and incompetent also know that the law favours them and they take full advantage to hide their actions.

  • Comment number 5.

    I doubt many have any problem with the legalistic excuses for moderation. You have started with the easy area!

    Also it clearly varies according to who it is. Politicians, presumably on the basis their reputation could be no lower, are rightly open season it seems.

    Or Jonathan Ross!

    Even on this defamation though. How prominent does something need to be to be a valid case of 'one that lowers the reputation of an identifiable person or company in the eyes of right thinking members of the public.' For example on a piece of paper nailed to a tree in the midst of a forest. Does it matter, count? As few if any see it. At what point would it count? Clearly on a media headline or inside page even, it is trying to be shown to as many people as possible. Between those would fall a blog/message board post. Almost as obscure to come across as the note on the tree in the forest but not quite. As much hidden in a even vaster forest of other notes on tress to have been come across. Compare to countless 'defamations' in social situations like a pub.

    How many times have the BBC been asked to remove a post by anyone 'defamed'?

    We all await with anticipation your broaching of the blatant catch all totally subjective 'rules'. :)

  • Comment number 6.

    Thanks for the comments, all

    @upyourego Thanks for the suggestion. Hopefully explaining things on here and a revamp of our help pages will help somewhat but I will contact Training to see what, if any, resources they'd consider making available.

    @s_slatt

    "Does it really take an hour and a half to read a dozen words?"

    No, but we get more than one 12-word post every hour and a half. Lately the queues have been getting longer than we'd like so we've committed more moderation resources to cope with the increased traffic.

    @BettyHur

    Many thanks for your comments - I'm not sure anyone has ever thanked us for moderation before!

    @JamesStGeorge

    I think you'd be amazed how many people don't understand libel or object to clearly libellous posts being removed - we receive large volumes of mail from users that accuse us of censorship when they have attempted to post material that could clearly land them and us in court. So I'd prefer to think I've started with the basic legal constraints, rather than the "easy area" :-)

    The comparison with pub banter was made last year by Mr Justice Eady:

    http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/shane_richmond/blog/2008/09/04/online_comments_are_more_like_slander_than_libel_says_judge

    but this is far from clear. The prominence you refer to isn't actually a defence and certainly anything posted on the BBC website could be considered to have reached a wide enough audience to run the risk of libel. In fact, in order to bring an action for libel a claimant has to show only that it was published to at least one person (other than him). However the number of people who had access to the defamatory statement may be relevant for assessing the amount of damages.

    I don't have any figures for how many times we've removed posts or similar content in the past, it tends to be dealt with either straight away by the moderators or by direct contact with other departments. However, I'd say a serious, credible defamation issue finds its way across my desk at least once a month, which sounds a reasonable amount to demonstrate that there's a genuine risk, but also that our moderation is pretty effective considering the tens of thousands of posts we get each day. Can I ask what sort of figures would you expect?

    Sorry, I'm not sure exactly what you mean in your last paragraph, but once I've done the posts on the legal stuff I hope to be able to do some more posts on other moderation issues.

  • Comment number 7.

    Paul Wakely, thank you for replying.

    Can I ask what sort of figures would you expect?

    I meant how many people actually come to you to complain they have been 'defamed' by a user post demanding its removal. I would be surprised if it were even the one a month you refer to, though we may be talking of different things yet.

    Pub talk comparison. Interesting, that slander is far less possible to win, and that internet chat is being considered now as possibly more akin to talk. As legal trainer Richard Sharpe points out, slander is harder to prove than libel.
    The written form seems to have the law system lagging well behind real life developments. With one judge at least edging towards realisation of the nature of internet debate. Clearly the original laws must have been set up to deal with a different era and possible written forms, like published media. The one person having seen something basis is ludicrous though. I believe the USA system there is a need to show actual harm to get anywhere first? Probably way better.

    I realise you have to operate with what law there is here and now though.

    Two comments to the link you provided.
    There is always the defence of 'fair comment'
    More relevant than fair comment is vulgar abuse, which does not constitute defamation.


    Any truth to them? If so how and where would they work. I assume the 'vulgar abuse' would not pass on the BBC for other issues, fair enough, but if it did?


    I wonder, :) were blogs and messageboards run not on written text but recorded mp3s. Would the legal position be slander not libel. :D Imagine a thread of posts that played voice recorded message posts on passing the cursor over. (Ok I know it could not actually happen due to storage and band width problems.)

    My point being it is the technical constraints that make posts a 'written' form of what is a time and location shifting facility of 'pub talk'. Not learned researched academic written discourses.


  • Comment number 8.

    Aghh quote boxes do not work, hate the blog system with no preview! grrr. I am sure you will work out the quotes.

  • Comment number 9.

    @JamesStGeorge

    Cheers for your response. One of the things that makes blog and board comments very different from pub banter is that they are usually permanently visible and can be linked to. So no-one really knows how many people could read a comment. If someone posts something to two or three friends on their stamp-collecting forum, say, then it's not likely to be of any real significance to the person being defamed. If that links gets picked up, blogged about, reposted etc then more people could end up reading it than if it was in the papers.

    These are the kind of issues that the law will need to address, so there's some interesting debates ahead. :-)

    I think the lawyers will get jumpy if I go into detail, but the 'one a month' figure I'm talking about is for instances where there is a genuine threat of court action, not just someone moaning someone's been nasty about them. It's a significant threat, not an imagined one, at least for the BBC. But the very fact that we can clearly demonstrate that we have an effective moderation system in place is a great help in this regard.

    I know there will be many who won't believe me, but we do allow fair comment as much as we can, and try to only remove material that makes a clear unsubstantiated allegation against someone, or is otherwise harassing, offensive, etc. That's not to say the mods always get this right, but those are the standards we aim for. When I see posters on the boards saying "I just had a post removed for saying I don't like [insert BBC presenter of your choice here] - seems the BBC don't like criticism" more often than not they have neglected to mention that they also accused them of corruption, gross misconduct, criminal acts etc :-D

    Cheers

    Paul

  • Comment number 10.

    Paul:
    For someone who is related to a lawyer (here) in my country (USA)...You have to be careful about slander and the related problems, since it will cost money in the arena of Defamation....

    Also, I have to agreed with the BBC and take the into consideration...

    ~Dennis Junior~

  • Comment number 11.

    Paul,

    Thanks for the clarifications in this and the succeeding thread. I understand the need to avoid legal problems, but I'd like to know when (if ever) some of the blogs for grownups (Newsnight, Justin Webb, The Reporters, etc.) might be let out of the playpen of pre-moderation they share with Cbeebies?

    Delays have run to longer than four hours at times, and this is surely not conducive to reasoned discussion. Certainly post or reactive moderation for the "grown up" blogs should be adequate.

    Or are there real valid reasons for keeping us in the playpen?

    If you're not the ones to ask, can you direct me to the appropriate area, please.

    Thanks in advance
    ed

  • Comment number 12.

    I think there is another point of contention and frustration here.

    Your Moderators can and do send emails back to bloggers which say anonymous things about defamation.

    What they DON'T explain, for an example, who or what the moderator(s) think the person's blog defames.

    So instead of a helpful tool such as, 'we think your posting may be dafamatory towards, say, ABC Banking Corp', the poor contributor is left analysing the comments for any possible defamation towards any person or organisation s/he has made reference to.

    That ambiguity is inclined to make it less easy to re-post an amended version.

    Surely, there must be a better way?

  • Comment number 13.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

 

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