Saturday, September 17, 2011
A story about Madeleine McCann was published on our website last Friday. It was only eight paragraphs long and merely reported that British detectives who are investigating the case had travelled to Portugal for meetings with the Portuguese authorities. In the print version in the Mercury, the story made a short piece on page eight.
However, what was a relatively routine article received a disproportionately large number of comments from online readers.
In fact, the 26 messages placed on the story made it one of the most commented-on stories in the Mercury that day.
The reason for this disproportionate interest is because there are a number of people who are hostile to the McCanns and vent their opinions online, if given the opportunity to do so. For this reason, we usually bar the comment facility on any story connected with this family.
On this occasion, this article slipped through the net and people were able to leave messages.
Not all of them were hostile. Some people had gone on to the site to remonstrate with those making critical remarks.
One said: “The McCanns don’t need comments like this and the LM should remove the comment facility as they usually do on this story.”
As soon as we became aware of the situation, we did exactly that.
We have also taken some further steps to try to guard against it happening again.
I am raising the matter here, however, to explain why we follow this policy at all. Indeed, there is a view, generally held by those hostile to the McCanns, that our stance runs against the principle of freedom of speech and that they should be able to air their opinions on this matter.
The first issue here is a legal one. Some of the discussion around the Madeleine McCann case tends to stray into the area of defamation. Indeed, the McCanns have successfully sued several national newspapers for libel.
However, the law around internet discussion forums means our responsibility to remove libellous remarks only begins when somebody complains to us about a particular comment.
Nobody did so in this case, we took the decision to remove the comments unilaterally.
In any event, most of the remarks which were left were not libellous. Some of them were, in my opinion, very harsh and lacking in compassion, but that is, of course, not a legal issue at all.
What this is more about then is an editorial judgement, rather than one driven by the obligations of the law.
It is certainly true that we regard the principle of freedom of speech as an important one.
We create forums in the print version of the newspaper and on our website to enable readers to air their views. Sometimes, that discussion is extremely robust and occasionally people are offended by things that are said.
There are certain subjects where comment is likely to upset people.
Topics such as religious faith and immigration, for instance, are highly sensitive, but they are also important areas of public discussion, and we want to allow this to run as freely as possible.
There is a well-known observation that freedom of speech means the freedom to offend.
However, the principle of freedom of speech is not the only thing which we have to consider as a newspaper.
We have to balance it against other considerations, such as taste, fairness, decency and courtesy.
For instance, we would not publish a letter about immigration that we felt was racist (there is a legal implication here as well) or one about religious faith which was just insulting. Similarly, we would not print a letter that was obscene, or in poor taste, or which contained abuse.
Balancing freedom of speech against these other considerations is quite a tough call and we constantly wrestle with establishing that line.
Discussion forums online are a little different in that we usually only remove comments when they are reported to us.
We do not actively monitor messages left on our website. However, we still apply the same considerations when complaints are made.
What I have talked about so far relates to discussions around general issues of public importance.
The issue of freedom of speech becomes more difficult when it involves criticisms made against specific individuals.
It is obviously hurtful to see oneself attacked in print or online. There is, therefore, a greater weight upon us to consider things like fairness and courtesy.
Some individuals are more likely to attract criticism than others. Politicians are the obvious example. They are people with a high public profile who are making decisions which affect our lives.
I do not agree they are “fair game” as some commentators tend to assert. They are, in my view, entitled to a private life free from unwarranted intrusion and they are entitled also to respect.
However, politicians have to expect to be scrutinised and discussed and criticised, and that goes with the territory.
When the individuals concerned, however, are ordinary members of the public, who have suffered a terrible personal tragedy in their lives, the need to show them fairness, courtesy and respect is obviously much greater still.
In fact, I think the responsibility upon us in such cases is so greatly weighted towards the individuals concerned that it actually becomes very easy to establish the line between common decency and freedom of expression. In these circumstances, the former clearly outweighs the latter.
And I do not really accept there is any genuine issue of civil liberty at all.
There is no great public importance in allowing the criticism of people in this position. It is freedom of speech simply for the sake of freedom of speech. The ability to make nasty comments about the McCanns, for instance, is not important to our way of life or the future of our society. The only possible wider outcome is to cause further upset to them.
As a newspaper, it is, of course, important to us to uphold the principle of freedom of speech. It is a vital part of our credibility that we carry a range of views and that debate in our pages is lively and vigorous.
However, there are other values which are important to us also, the sort of things I have mentioned above, and which I think our readers also expect us to uphold, particularly as a community newspaper.
If some people feel they have a right to say whatever they like about the McCanns, they are perfectly entitled to find a forum for their views elsewhere.
However, we are not obliged to publish what they say and we will not be doing so.