A benchmark established for blogger responsibility

A significant event happened yesterday that embraces freedom of speech, blogging and notions of responsibility for one’s actions.

It concerns a blog post written by Rod Liddle (a journalist), published on a blog run by The Spectator (a weekly political magazine owned by the Telegraph Media Group), and ruled by the Press Complaints Commission (the mainstream media regulator in the UK) to have breached its code of editorial practice regarding dealing with a reader complaint.

In his post, Liddle wrote that “the overwhelming majority” of London’s violent crime was carried out by young African-Caribbean men. But the PCC ruled this statement, made as fact and without sufficient substantiation, breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of its code.

Liddle and The Spectator argued that as the statement was made in a blog post, it was enough to rely on readers’ comments to present different points of view and to address any inaccuracies in the post.

The PCC didn’t see it that way:

[…] the Commission did not agree that the magazine could rely on publishing critical reaction as a way of abrogating its responsibilities under the Code. While it had provided some evidence to back up Mr Liddle’s position, it had not been able to demonstrate that the ‘overwhelming majority’ of crime in all the stated categories had been carried out by members of the African-Caribbean community. Nor could it successfully argue that the claim was purely the columnist’s opinion – rather, it was a statement of fact. As such, the Commission believed that "the onus was on the magazine to ensure that it was corrected authoritatively online". In the absence of such remedial action the Commission upheld the complaint.

PCC director, Stephen Abell, said: "This is a significant ruling because it shows that the PCC expects the same standards in newspaper and magazine blogs that it would expect in comment pieces that appear in print editions. There is plenty of room for robust opinions, views and commentary but statements of fact must still be substantiated if and when they are disputed. And if substantiation isn’t possible, there should be proper correction by the newspaper or magazine in question."

This is the first time that the media regulator has ruled in this way regarding a blog post.

What does it mean for bloggers and blogging in general? Could any blogger be challenged by the PCC and suffer similar consequences?

The PCC’s remit covers the mainstream media. Indeed, in this particular case, there’s clear emphasis on that in the PCC director’s words:

[…] the PCC expects the same standards in newspaper and magazine blogs that it would expect in comment pieces that appear in print editions.

On the face of it, then, if you’re not a journalist writing a blog published by a mainstream medium, you’d not expect to attract the attention of the Press Complaints Commission.

Yet I think this ruling is indeed significant in that for the first time it establishes a formal benchmark of responsibility, so to speak, regarding expression of opinion in a blog post that’s seen as fact.

I would think it likely that the ruling would be referenced in future in, say, a legal case if a blogger happens to be sued by someone for libel.

Whatever type of blogger you are, checking your facts and paying close attention to detail are ever more essential before you click that ‘publish’ button or moderate that comment.

Neville Hobson

Social Strategist, Communicator, Writer, and Podcaster with a curiosity for tech and how people use it. Believer in an Internet for everyone. Early adopter (and leaver) and experimenter with social media. Occasional test pilot of shiny new objects. Avid tea drinker.

  1. Adrian Melrose

    Neville, quite right: that publish button is a powerful one and it needs to be met with a sense of responsibility especially for those who have mastered the art of Search Engine Optimised blogs. Having said that, the price that is paid for getting it wrong is high and I feel that there are enough checks and balances in place to ensure most bloggers take this responsibility quite seriously.

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