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Posts Tagged ‘freedom of speech

State-funded primary school spent £244,000 on libel case against father of former teacher

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A state-funded South London primary school which has repeatedly been praised by Education Secretary Michael Gove has admitted incurring over £387,000 in  legal costs since 2008.

The bulk of the costs, disclosed by Durand Academy under the Freedom of Information Act*, relate to a libel case against Jeff Newell, the father of a former teacher at the school, over comments he had made about the school’s headteacher and senior management team.  Durand  records legal fees of £244,675 in relation to this libel case.

The school states that “Mr Newell made a full and unreserved apology. All costs that could be recouped, given Mr Newell’s financial situation, were paid to Durand”. Details of the amount covered by Mr Newell are not given.

The latest FOI disclosure comes on top of an admission by Durand Academy last year that it had paid nearly £200,000 to a PR firm, “Political Lobbying and Media Relations”.

The new figures do not include the as-yet-undisclosed amount that Durand has spent funding an ongoing libel complaint against Lambeth Council and its chief auditor over three emails which raised concerns about the school’s management. Index on Censorship last year estimated that this case may already have cost over £100,000.

But Durand does disclose the legal fees totalling £81,876 that it spent persuading the Department for Education to grant it FMSiS  financial best practice accreditation**. According to court documents from the Lambeth libel case, the school employed the law firm Carter Ruck to represent them in this effort. Durand also hired Carter Ruck in the Jeff Newell libel case, and the ongoing case against Lambeth council.

In a landmark ruling in the early 1990s, the House of Lords determined that there was “no public interest favouring the right of organs of government, whether central or local, to sue for libel… to admit such actions would place an undesirable fetter on freedom of speech”.

As a public body, Durand Academy therefore cannot sue for libel in its own right. Yet individual staff and governors can take action over allegations made about the school, so long as they can make the case that they were personally defamed within the discussion. Durand is one of a number of public authorities who have chosen to fund such personal libel actions by their employees in recent years.

(*See here for my original FOI request, made in June 2011, with a chaser message sent in November. The school’s disclosure follows a complaint to the Information Commission the following month after Durand continued to ignore the request.)

(**The remaining disclosed legal costs were: £28,340 incurred in relation to a 2008-09 hearing at the General Teaching Council, £19,163  on planning/property, and £13,487 spent on converting the school to an Academy.)

Durand Academy’s full FOI disclosure can be read here

Written by Richard Wilson

January 27, 2012 at 2:03 pm

Permission To Speak: Conservative Lord suggests that government “may end up regulating” the blogosphere

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Last month Liberal Conspiracy reported on plans by David Hunt, a Conservative Member of the House of Lords, and the new head of the Press Complaints Commission, to “invite political bloggers to volunteer for regulation by the PCC’s replacement”.

Hunt was also reported to have said that bloggers posed a “greater challenge” than the tabloid press, and that “At the moment, it is like the Wild West out there. We need to appoint a sheriff.”

In response, I wrote to David Hunt via http://www.writetothem.com with ten questions about his idea.

Here’s what I asked:

1. Despite the recent growth of the internet, many more people still read books than read blogs. Some of the things that are written in books are inaccurate and misleading. Thousands of new books are published in the UK each year. Yet other than the law of libel – which is equally applicable to blogs – there is currently no formal mechanism for challenging inaccuracies published in books. In order to be consistent, will the Press Complaints Commission therefore be seeking to “kitemark” books – or book publishers? If not, why single out blogs and blogging?

2. It has been suggested that you believe inaccurate reporting by bloggers to pose a “greater challenge” than inaccurate coverage by the tabloid press. Can you provide some specific examples of inaccurate reporting by bloggers that you believe might substantiate this claim?

3. In 2010 I reported the Daily Mail to the Press Complaints Commission over an article in which it made a series of false claims downplaying the health risks of white asbestos. [see http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/the-lay-scientist/2010/sep/27/asbestos-press-watchdog-pcc]. The newspaper eventually agreed to print a correction. Can you provide an example of a similarly toxic false health claim made by a blogger?

4. Can you provide an example of a blog whose reporting is consistently less accurate than, for example, that of the Daily Mail?

5. Would the proposed kitemarking scheme apply to all organisations that publish a blog (eg. Cancer Research UK [http://scienceblog.cancerresearchuk.org/] or Topshop [http://insideout.topshop.com/]) or only to individual blogs that are deemed “political”?

6. Would the proposed kitemarking scheme apply to political blogs published by Members of Parliament – for example Nadine Dorries MP [http://blog.dorries.org/] and Tom Watson MP? [http://www.tom-watson.co.uk/]

7. Would the proposed kitemarking scheme apply to all blogs read in the UK (ie. including US-based blogs such as BoingBoing [http://boingboing.net], and the US edition of the Huffington Post [http://www.huffingtonpost.com/?country=US]) or only to blogs written by people living in the UK?

8. Would the proposed kitemarking scheme apply to publicly visible postings and “groups” on Facebook, and to postings on microblogging sites such as Twitter?

9. Many political blogs are highly critical of the habits and standards of commercial newspapers, including the Daily Mail, Daily Mirror, Sun and Daily Telegraph. Given that the Press Complaints Commission would receive the bulk of its funding from such sources even under the alternative arrangements you are proposing, would this not create a serious conflict of interest, undermining the credibility of any attempt by the PCC to “regulate” political bloggers?

10. Many political blogs are highly critical of the Conservative Party and its donors, and of the wider political establishment in which the three main political parties operate. Given that both you and your predecessor are Conservative members of the House of Lords, does this not also create a serious conflict of interest, and undermine the perceived neutrality and objectivity of any PCC “kitemarking” scheme for political bloggers?

I’m pleased to say that I’ve now received a reply. It came, somewhat incongruously, on paper, through the post (I will be responding in detail via my 50-mile-long network of Semaphore towers), so this is lovingly hand-typed from the original:

Dear Mr Wilson,

Thank you for your letter dated 19th December. I am pleased that you were interested in my recent interview.

As you will have seen from my reported comments any future plan for online media would be to invite bloggers who write on current affairs to volunteer to be regulated by the new system of self-regulation. This logically follows because such blogs are news-like and similar in content to newspapers and magazines.

All media and publications will make mistakes on accuracy from time to time. The important thing is that content is regulated by an agreed code of practice and that errors can be corrected speedily and with due prominence.

With regard to my reported comment that bloggers were a “greater challenge”. This was a passing remark made in an interview which has been amplified. I was not discussing standards in blogs, but rather the structural issue that they represent an area of free speech, which government may want to regulate, or may end up regulating. The point I was making was that work needs to be done to stave off statutory regulation for everyone, including blogs. This is the challenge.

Demonstrating adherence to such a set of standards and to an effective self-regulatory system would of course mean that publications could convey to their readers that they could trust what they read and would mean that readers could recognise the intentions of the editors of that publication whether in print or online. That is why I suggested some kind of “kitemark” would convey a gold standard for those publications that carried it.

I hope the above information helps you understand the voluntary nature of the system I have suggested. Of course the key to the success of such a proposal is designing a new regulatory regime that is seen to be effective and which publishers will want to be part of and buy into.

Yours sincerely,

[signed]

The Right Hon The Lord Hunt of Wirral MBE

Readers will note that David Hunt has sidestepped a number of my questions but let’s focus on what he does say. Hunt’s starting point seems to be that there is a substantial danger that the UK government may decide to impose compulsory regulation on bloggers – and that creating a voluntary scheme of “self-regulation”, run by the Press Complaints Commission (or whatever replaces it), might therefore be an effective way of heading this off.

Now I don’t doubt that a large section of the UK political establishment would love to start imposing further controls on what we say and do online – although it is sobering to see this being discussed as a serious possibility by a Conservative member of the House of Lords.  But the idea that the best way to prevent this is to start accepting “voluntary” regulation of bloggers seems self-defeating.

It’s worth remembering that UK bloggers have never operated in a regulation-free-zone. Bloggers can be – and have been – sued for libel if they write something about somebody that that person finds objectionable. We can, in principle, be sued for breaches of privacy or copyright infringement, arrested for contempt of court if we ignore a gagging order, or subject to police action under lackadaisically-drafted “harrassment” laws. We are subject to the Cancer Act, and the Advertising Standards Agency.

So any new regulations the government decided to impose would be additional to these limits.

A better starting point, it seems to me, would be to insist that the UK government has no business trying to “regulate” the blogosphere beyond the constraints that already exist. Rather than simply accepting the regulation of political speech as a grim inevitability, and then voluntarily embracing PCC oversight in the hope of retaining some measure of liberty, it would surely make more sense to turn the tables and demand that our politicians adhere to the “standards” we expect of them – one of these being a clear understanding on their part that our freedom of speech is not up for negotiation.

Written by Richard Wilson

January 11, 2012 at 11:26 pm

Make a vid for freedom and defy #Trafigura!

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Earlier today we showed up outside Trafigura’s offices to video ourselves reading out the information they have been trying so hard to suppress.

If you couldn’t make the protest, you can still help to drive the point home, by reading out the ‘banned text’ in your own Youtube video at home or work.

The more of us do this, the more clearly we can send out the message that the internet can’t be gagged, and that efforts to do so are doomed to backfire.

Please be as original and creative as you like, but if you need a starting point here’s the basic text that we’ll be using:

I am [name] and I’m using my freedom under the 1688 Bill of Rights to read the following quote from Parliament, in defiance of Trafigura:

“The recent example of the release of toxic waste in the Ivory Coast leading to the deaths of a number of people and the hospitalisation of thousands underlines the risks involved in the movement and management of waste.”

The next step is then to upload the video to Youtube (or Vimeo or Yfrog), with the word “Trafigura” somewhere in the description text, and tell as many people as possible. If you’re on Twitter, please do spread the word by Tweeting the link to your vid with the #Trafigura hashtag.

We’ll be embedding and linking to every video we find, and eventually editing them all together as part of a top-secret new web 2.0 project, so please do let us know via this page once your work is published!

Here’s Kate defying #Trafigura!

…and here’s Chris

Here’s Simon


Here’s Sly…

Here’s Reggie

…and here’s Lianne

Here’s Alex defying #Trafigura!

Here’s Jimbo Gunn defying #Trafigura to the tune of “Ode to Joy”

Here’s Derek defying #Trafigura

Here’s Dom defying #Trafigura

Here’s Lauren’s cat defying #Trafigura

Here’s Peregrine defying #Trafigura

Here’s Joel Sams defying #Trafigura with gravitas!

Here’s a robot space alien defying #Trafigura

Here’s one I made earlier


Here’s Paul defying #Trafigura

Written by Richard Wilson

November 25, 2009 at 1:03 pm

Trafigura coverage still curtailed by libel abuse. UK media unable to report freely on deaths allegedly caused by dumping of Trafigura’s toxic waste

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gag

*Update* See also: Doc Richard – Trafigura suppresses scientific lecture – allegedly

*Update 2* Rebellion spreads – Caroline Lucas MEP mentions the unmentionable.

There’s renewed coverage today of the ongoing legal battles following the notorious Ivory Coast toxic waste incident, in which the oil trader Trafigura has been implicated.

The Guardian (UK), Times (UK) and New York Times (US) all report that the £30 million compensation payment by Trafigura to victims of the disaster is in danger of being misappropriated after an Ivorian court ordered that the funds be frozen.

But note also the contrast in how the UK and US media have reported the background to the story. Here’s how the New York Times covers it:

The waste was shipped by Trafigura, an international commodities trading giant. About 108,000 people sought treatment for nausea, headaches, vomiting and abdominal pains, and at least 15 died. All had apparently been poisoned by the toxic brew of gasoline and caustic soda, refining byproducts dumped by Trafigura’s contractor.

Here’s the Guardian:

Hundreds of tonnes of sulphur-contaminated toxic oil waste were cheaply dumped on landfills and in ditches around Abidjan in 2006. The cargo ship had been chartered by Trafigura. In the weeks after, the fumes caused thousands of sick people to besiege local hospitals.

…and here’s the Times:

A cargo ship chartered by Trafigura dumped hundreds of tonnes of sulphur-contaminated toxic oil waste around Abidjan in 2006. In the following weeks the fumes caused thousands of people to need hospital treatment.

The deaths of “up to 17″ Ivorians has been widely reported elsewhere. In previous articles, both the Times and the Guardian have referred to a UN report citing “official estimates” of 15 dead. So it seems odd that this seemingly crucial detail should now be omitted.

The New York Times is of course free to say what it likes because freedom of speech is protected under the US constitution, and New York State has a law which specifically prohibits the enforcement of UK libel judgements in NY, due to human rights concerns.

Fortunately in the UK we do still have (despite some recent confusion) an absolute right to report the proceedings of Parliament, so I can draw your attention to this recent statement from Evan Harris MP:

My understanding is that “Newsnight” is being threatened by the lawyers for Trafigura, Carter-Ruck, if it repeats an allegation… that deaths were caused by the dumping of toxic waste in Ivory Coast, even though in 2007 Hansard reported the Transfrontier Shipment of Waste Regulations laid by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs before Parliament, and a memorandum of explanation to those regulations stated:

“The recent example of the release of toxic waste in the Ivory Coast leading to the deaths of a number of people and the hospitalisation of thousands underlines the risks involved in the movement and management of waste.”

How can it be that that can be in Hansard, yet there are still threats of legal action against “Newsnight” if it reports the very same wording that is used in there? That cannot be right.

What Dr. Harris could also have mentioned is that, astoundingly, alongside these renewed threats, Trafigura’s libel action over this damning May 2009 news report, appears still to be ongoing.

Written by Richard Wilson

November 5, 2009 at 10:52 am

MPs to debate libel abuse and freedom of speech tomorrow

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gag

CarterRuck have already contacted your MP to give their views on libel, ahead of tomorrow’s debate on freedom of speech. Now’s your chance to give yours: www.tr.im/Cl3D

Written by Richard Wilson

October 20, 2009 at 11:25 am

Burundi activists launch campaign to free Alexis Sinduhije and Jean-Claude Kavumbagu

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The Burundian activist Frederic Gateretse has launched a campaign to free Alexis Sinduhije, Jean-Claude Kavumbagu and the other political prisoners arrested in President Nkurunziza’s latest crackdown on dissent.

Both Alexis and Jean-Claude were enormously helpful to me while I was researching and writing Titanic Express (and I quote extensively from Alexis in the book’s final chapter), so I’m happy to support them now.

Frederic Gateretse says:

The CNDD-FDD led government has failed to deliver on its promises and is doing all it can to silence its critics by having a tight control on all that is happening in the country. Several opposition leaders have been arrested including Jean Claude Kavumbagu, Pasteur Mpawenayo, and Alexis Sinduhije to name a few.

It appears the government has decided to focus on winning the upcoming 2010 general elections at all cost for the alternative will be disastrous to the current leadership which has a lot to answer to in terms of corruption, mismanagement of public funds, human rights violations and the scrapping of political freedom.

Written by Richard Wilson

November 13, 2008 at 10:35 pm

Jean-Claude still being held by Burundian government – Amnesty International lists him as a “Prisoner of Conscience”

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It’s now one month since my friend Jean-Claude Kavumbagu, who helped me enormously with “Titanic Express” (he is mentioned in the acknowledgements), was arrested and detained on bogus grounds in Burundi.

Jean-Claude, a journalist and ardent critic of corruption and human rights abuse in his country, had the audacity to question the tens of thousands of dollars spent by President Pierre Nkurunziza during his visit to the Beijing Olympics. Jean-Claude’s news agency says it was $90,000. Nkurunziza’s CNDD-FDD government claims it was about half that figure, and has jailed Jean-Claude for “defamation” simply for saying otherwise. The average income in Burundi is $700 a year.

Amnesty International has taken up the case, listing Jean-Claude as “a prisoner of conscience, detained solely for the peaceful exercise of his right to freedom of expression.”

Jean-Claude’s arbitrary arrest sits in sharp contrast with the PR campaign by religious groups seeking to portray President Pierre Nkurunziza – a born-again Christian and vocal supporter of greater church involvement in politics – as the model of the humble and ‘forgiving’ African leader.

Click here to find out what you can do to help.

UK government plans blanket monitoring of emails, phone calls, and web browsing – while insisting that “no formal decision” has yet been taken

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The Times reports that the UK government is considering plans for a £12 billion database to monitor and store the emails, phone calls and web browsing records of everyone in the country. While the Home Office is reportedly at pains to insist – echoing the rhetoric in the run-up to the Iraq war – that “no formal decision” has yet been taken to go ahead, The Times says that the government has already committed up to £1 billion to the project.

In “Don’t Get Fooled Again“, I look at the arguments used by politicians to grant themselves “sweeping new powers”, and the unintended consequences that result when checks on government power are undermined.

Attack of the ‘rogue state’ libel laws…

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Last week I wrote about the defensive measures being taken in the US to prevent Britain’s rapacious libel laws being used to undermine freedom of speech internationally. Now, via Craig Murray’s blog, I’ve learned that our rogue state laws may have claimed another victim. The longstanding politics discussion site “Harry’s Place” has reportedly been temporarily closed down simply by the threat of libel being made against the site’s internet service provider, following a dispute with a Sheffield academic, Jenna Delich.

Contributors to “Harry’s Place” have accused Delich of linking, via her own website, to the site of the far-right anti-semite KKK all-round bad egg extremist David Duke. Delich says that these claims are libellous, hence the reported take-down demand.

As is traditional in such cases (see here for a previous fiasco in which, bizarrely, Boris Johnson got caught in the crossfire), the full saga is now being recounted on a site hurriedly put together on blogspot, which is a) very easy to use and b) hosted several thousand miles outside of UK jurisdiction.

Written by Richard Wilson

August 27, 2008 at 11:00 pm