Defamation and the internet: a consultation response to the Ministry of Justice

Last month I blogged about the consultation currently taking place on the law of defamation and the multiple publication rule. The deadline for that is today. Below I’ve published my own responses. If you feel I’ve got something wrong or missed something, please let me know.

Question 1. Taking into account the arguments set out [in the document], do you consider in principle that the multiple publication rule should be retained? If not, should a single publication rule be introduced? Please give reasons for your answers.

Comments: Based on the arguments set out, I do not believe that the multiple publication rule should be retained. The primary reason for this is that the burden of proof in these cases rests on the publishers, in situations where any records may well have disappeared. This is particularly problematic when employment within publishing is increasingly unpredictable, and employees – along with their records – are either frequently leaving or being made redundant from positions, or working for the organisation on a freelance basis. A single publication rule should be introduced.

In addition, the multiple publication rule is based on a print-based industry where defamatory material might be hard to access. In an industry that commonly publishes content online, with its concomitant findability, ease of distribution, and monitoring, it would be particularly unusual for a person not to become aware of defamatory content within a year of its publication.

Question 2. If the multiple publication rule were to be retained should there be an obligation to place a notice on an archive once the person responsible has been notified that the material is subject to defamation proceedings?

Comments: Yes. This would not only guard against other actions but also alert potential witnesses who may read the article or, in future, receive updates on it.

Question 3. Do you agree that if a single publication rule were to be introduced, it should apply to all defamation proceedings, not just those relating to online publications?

Comments: Yes. Otherwise someone could simply use online archives to find the material but visit the physical archives to support their case.

Question 4. If a single publication rule were introduced,

a) should it be made obligatory to remove or amend material held in other formats under the control of the same publisher in the event of a successful defamation action against the original publication of the material?

Yes. Clearly if material is found to be defamatory then the publisher should alter any defamatory material under their control.

b) should there be a provision that, where defamatory material is re-transmitted in a new format, the single publication rule would only protect the previous publisher and not the publisher of the new article?

No. The idea of an article, for example, linking to defamatory material being defamatory itself would seriously threaten the culture of transparency in web publication where authors are expected to link to their sources.

Question 5. 
b) Should online content that has been modified be regarded as a new publication?

No. This would discourage useful modifications and corrections as staff would then have to check the entire text every time a small element of it was brought to their attention. If every modification was considered a new publication, publishers would simply leave erroneous or outdated material unchanged.

Question 6. As an alternative to introducing a single publication rule, do you consider that the Defamation Act 1996 should be amended to extend the defence of qualified privilege to publications on online archives outside the one year limitation period for the initial publication, unless the publisher refuses or neglects to update the electronic version, on request, with a reasonable letter or statement by the claimant by way of explanation or contradiction? Please give reasons for your answer.

Comments: I am inclined to say ‘Yes’ here because it restricts the opportunity for profit-motivated legal action against publishers. However, such a move also runs the risk of inclining publishers to complying with such requests to avoid losing their qualified privilege, regardless of the truth of the ‘reasonable’ letter. It’s not clear whether simply having a commenting facility on a story represents an opportunity for claimants to update an article with a response, or whether that response would have to be published in the main body of the article. All these elements need to be factored in.

Question 7. Do you agree that if the multiple publication rule is retained, the limitation period should remain at one year from the date of publication (with discretion to extend)? If not, what limitation period would be appropriate and why?

Comments: Yes. As the current one year period is not causing problems, there appears little reason to extend to ten years.

Question 8. 
a) If a single publication rule were introduced, should the limitation period of one year run from the date of publication (with discretion to extend) or the date of knowledge (without discretion to extend)? If the latter, should there also be a ten year long-stop from the date of publication?

From publication. The introduction of date of knowledge is problematic to prove and makes preparation of a defence equally complicated. Given the accessibility of contemporaneous content, companies and those in the public eye are likely to monitor online media for mentions and become aware of defamatory content quickly. Even those who don’t are likely to be made aware of potentially defamatory content within a short time, given the nature of the web. The increased ability of people to search, distribute and access content online makes it difficult to support any limitation period based on date of knowledge.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.