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Confirm comment report request

Before this turns into a storm in a teacup, here's how this all unfolded:

Imj posts a comment while I'm out having dinner, having a drink and watching some terrific comedy - Stewart Francis is hilarious, btw.

I pop back home and find ROOL has reported the comment via the 'report a comment' link. On immediate reflection there is one word in the post that renders Imj's comment potentially libellous. I quickly dive into the database and remove that one offending word while I've got a moment. I go out again and continue my evening in pleasant company.

I wake up the following morning, reply to Imj's email about why the comment had been edited, make a quick post to usenet about PV's websites being (hopefully temporarily) down, briefly glimpse at the drobe.co.uk front page to make sure it's still ticking over and then wait to get a lift to London and spend the night there, getting back again at about 4.30pm on Sunday.

I check drobe.co.uk and find all this. Why am I going over this in such detail (to the best of my memory)? Other than to highlight that this is all done in my free time as a distraction from work and the pub, I want to make the point that there is nothing nefarious going on. There isn't some plot to subversively edit comments. I quickly stopped a problem happening, as a publisher, and then had a weekend away from computers. I'm not in the habit of censoring people randomly or with some kind of hidden agenda. I love free speech.

In hindsight and I thought about it afterwards, I should have marked the comment as being edited (one word taken out) and I do this on the very rare occasions I have to. In this instance I didn't have time but, because Imj's a friend, I didn't think Imj would mind and that he'd understand why I removed the word. I didn't delete the whole comment because the rest of what Imj said was fair comment and I didn't want it all removed just because someone complained.

Part of my day job is spotting legal problems in articles. I'm aware of what can be published and what can't. Here's a quick 101 on libel: everyone is entitled to an opinion. Calling a product 'irrelevant' is fair comment, provided it's an honest opinion. The law is with you on this one. Where the law stops is when an opinion or other statement is expressed when there is no provable factual basis behind it. For example, calling a car dealership owner 'foolish' because his prices are 'outrageously expensive' is fair comment if the cars are expensive in the eyes of a reasonable, right-minded person. Calling that businessman 'a crook' when it can't be proved the guy has done anything unlawful (within the time limits of the Rehabilitation Act) is not fair comment, it isn't simply an opinion - it's an assertion, and is therefore defamatory.

But, yes, in this country you get free speech. You just have to be able to back up your assertions in court if it comes to that. What Imj posted could not be backed up by himself or by me. Under current libel law and contrary to popular belief, website owners /are/ responsible for comments published on their websites even if they are written by third-parties. But under section 1(1) of the Defamation Act, website owners can seek a defence that protects them from writs if a defamatory comment is posted - but only if a website publisher takes "reasonable care" in relation to the publication of comments and was not aware a defamatory statement had been published on a site. If a publisher is alerted to a potentially libellous statement, it must be removed (unless the publisher is willing to support it and keeps it public). That's why the 'report comment' link is there and why Imj's comment was edited.

Am I being over the top? Well, it's not nice being threatened with a libel writ (not that ROOL got anywhere near this point) but Drobe has been threatened in the past and I never want to go there again. There's times when I've stood my ground and times when we've had to accept that something can't be proven true in court. I recently met up with a friend who is a lawyer and he admitted he had once sent a threat of a libel writ to a little parish council newsletter that dared criticise a local yet rich business man, with the additional threat that the church would have to pick up the substantial legal bill. This is reality.

In summary, I'm sorry I didn't mark the comment as edited when I usually do but I was in a rush and, to be honest, didn't think Imj would mind the tweak. I don't agree that I changed the tone of his comment - that his opinion is the two OS streams are 'irrelevant' speaks volumes. I could have just dropped the whole comment but I was uncomfortable with doing that. Also, opinion: fine. Assertions: fine if they can be proved.

Hope this helps. Thanks for commenting on drobe.co.uk articles and polls :)

Chris, drobe editor.

 is a RISC OS Userdiomus on 3/5/09 5:37PM
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