Saturday, February 11, 2006


BLOGGING: U.K.'s Guardian online prepares to go to post-moderation of comments

PUBLISHED: February 12, 2006

The Guardian may be used to breaking the mould ÿÿ but what about the law?
Bold expansion renews fears over defamation

By Steven Vass, Media Correspondent
The Sunday Herald (Glasgow, Scotland, U.K.)

MEDIA lawyers will be swallowing hard at The Guardian's plans to massively increase reader interaction on its website this year. Having already been the only newspaper to allow readers to post messages straight on its site, it is about to take the risks to a whole new level.

The Guardian allows readers to reply to blogs written by journalists and post comments on messageboard topics started by other readers. To stay out of legal trouble, it keeps an eye on the messages posted (known as ÿÿpost-moderationÿÿ) and relies on tip-offs about risky items from other readers (ÿÿreaction moderationÿÿ). Users are also required to register before they contribute in the hope that this discourages abuses.

With this already in place, the paper is now planning a major change. Following a reshuffle of senior posts, former deputy editor Georgina Henry is leading a task force to implement this . Among the changes will be far more blogs from columnists for readers to debate and a big expansion in messageboards.

When editor Alan Rusbridger announ-ced the plans earlier this month, he made reference to The Huffington Post. This US website, which launched last year, trades almost purely on blogs from a roll call of senior journalists and commentators which attract scores of comments from readers. To some observers this is the model for 21st-century journalism ÿÿ a huge debating forum that radically alters the traditional relationship between journalists and readers.

It is a long way from anything that is happening at the websites of other UK newspapers. There are those, such as The Times and Press and Journal, which offer similar services to The Guardian in more modest forms, but in each case they are pre-moderated, that is material is filtered before it appears. The only other major media organisation to filter messages after they appear on its website is the BBC (which uses different types of moderation for different messageboards: pre-moderation for childrenÿÿs; post-moderation for the majority; and reactive moderation for certain low-risk adult boards, such as The Archers). Numerous other newspapers, including The Herald, Scotsman and the Daily Express, do not invite readers to add their tuppenceworth at all. In each case, the dangers of lawsuits seem to loom large.

Most assume the British courts will follow decisions made elsewhere in the world, which have held organisations responsible for defamatory messages appearing on their websites. The principle that anyone who circulates a statement is liable for it has been enough to make most organisations in Scotland play very safe. The Press and Journal and Daily Record are the only two Scottish newspapers to allow any reader interaction on their sites (although readers of The Courier can click through to a chatroom via the site of parent company DC Thomson). The P&J launched messageboards several months ago, which now generate about 50 comments a day. The traffic is still modest enough that current editor Derek Tucker reads every one and, so far, he has not had to reject any.

ÿÿI think there is a greater tolerance of online publishing than there is in paper. I think people do expect a certain robustness in input,ÿÿ says Tucker. At least until the volume of daily comments runs into the hundreds, says Tucker, he will continue to police them personally. It might then be delegated, but, he adds, ÿÿwe are not approaching that stage at the momentÿÿ.

This is not seen as an option for a bigger site such as Site editor Stewart Kirkpatrick wants to introduce an interactive feature and is watching developments at The Guardian and BBC . Pre-moderation is by far the safest way of proceeding, but it would come with a ÿÿmassive leap in the cost of the exerciseÿÿ. is, therefore, looking at some kind of post-moderation too, possibly restricting comments to less contentious issues to minimise risks.

The Guardian takes no such precautions. Executive editor Emily Bell, a member of the task force, says that in the four or five years since the paper stopped pre-moderating, it has not run into any legal problems through reader contributions. ÿÿEvery time you kick up in scale you run a greater risk of there being a problem, but everybody knows you can have all the checks and balances in the world and still end up fighting significant libel cases.

ÿÿPublishing material on talkboards and blogs is a real quantum leap in risk for newspapers. After spending so much money and time getting a legal infrastructure together, we are saying that part of what we do doesnÿÿt go through that process at all. Thatÿÿs a huge decision. But it has given us enormous rewards in terms of learning how to talk to the readers and how to handle a relationship with mutual respect. Itÿÿs a skill that newspapers didnÿÿt have in the past,ÿÿ she says. This is all very well, you might be thinking, but surely no amount of mutual respect is going to talk you out of a defamation suit when it comes?

The Guardian holds quarterly meetings between staff such as Bell and its legal team to make sure they are up to date with the latest legal developments. But inevitably there is still an element of risk. She cites an English case involving the Wall Street Journal Europe, where the judge decided that the degree of damage was affected by the number of people who had read the alleged libel. With thousands of messages appearing daily, the hope is that an offensive message would be spotted before it did much damage.

This does not give Stewart Kirkpatrick much comfort. ÿÿYou canÿÿt just cross your fingers and hope that nobody looks at it. You want your defence in law to be something slightly stronger than that,ÿÿ he says. Some take the view that the problem is British defamation law, which is generally seen as being stricter than in the US. This might explain why most US reader-interaction is post-moderated. Having said that, the websites of traditional media organisations in the US are not seen as being at the forefront of reader interaction either.

Many were made cautious by last yearÿÿs experiment at the Los Angeles Times, where readers were invited to contribute jointly to a comment piece about the Iraq war. It had to be pulled, to great embarrassment, after it was bombarded with rude messages.

And last month The Washington Post was criticised for closing a blog, written by ombudsman Deborah Howell, which accused a lobbyist of giving money to both political parties, after it too attracted abusive responses. The conclusion for many is that it is difficult for media companies to run websites that are truly similar to independent blogs and chatrooms. As well as being more likely to attract litigants, they have established brands to protect and long cultures of editing everything they publish.

As Emily Bell says: ÿÿTo be part of that world, we have to change some of the limits of traditional publishing.ÿÿ The question for everyone else is whether this is a change worth making.

© newsquest (sunday herald) limited. all rights reserved

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