guardian readers’ editor on why some posts don’t allow comments

By on Oct 3, 2007 in blogging, blogging techniques, internet libel, journalism, law, newspapers, online community | 2 comments

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The Guardian’s Readers’ Editor, Siobhain Butterworth, has written an insightful post explaining why, in some circumstances, posts on Comment is Free don’t allow comments from readers. Online community managers will also find some sound advice here.

Butterworth writes,

"Last week… another piece on Cif
discussed the relationship between the media and the police in the
McCann case and in other criminal investigations – but it was closed
for comment.

A short note explained that this was for "legal
reasons". Some readers felt this was not so much an explanation as a
lofty way of saying either "we’re not going to tell you why" or "it’s
too complicated for you to understand".

Most people, including some journalists and many people who comment on blogs, don’t fully understand libel and other laws that restrict what they can and can’t say online.

Publishers such as the Guardian choose to moderate the online discussions they host which, some solicitors feel, might actually increase rather than decrease their legal responsibility for the comments they allow to appear on their sites. The law, as Mumsnet recently discovered, is far from certain.

Personally, I think it’s irresponsible for a website to offer users the ability to comment and discuss on site without at least offering on demand moderation (via "alert a moderator" links) of that content. I know that Butterworth agrees that the Guardian should take some responsibility for protecting it’s users by moderating. Sometimes, however, the risk of allowing comment just becomes too high. Butterworth explains:

"At least 20 pieces involving the
McCanns have appeared on Cif since Madeleine McCann went missing in
May… Hundreds
of comments were posted to a few articles in September, after the
Portuguese police named the McCanns as formal suspects, with
headache-inducing consequences for the moderators. Discussion threads
on four pieces were closed, or closed early. The Guardian’s talk policy
does not allow defamatory postings and the problem was that many of the
deleted comments were no more than strong opinions weakly held – they
had no basis in fact."

If the defendant in a libel suit can prove that their comment is based upon an opinion honestly held, based upon fact and given without malice, for example a negative book review, then they will usually, although not always, be successful in using this defense. But determining what is and isn’t honestly held opinion, what is factually true, and whether a comment has been posted with or without malice is a tricky business. Butterworth says,

"The moderators are not lawyers, or
fact-checkers. They cannot give reasons to every user whose comments
are deleted, though they try to do so when time permits. To put their
task in perspective, on one Friday in September, more than 3,800
comments were posted on the Guardian website. The volume means that the
moderators’ approach to enforcing the talk policy has to be broad
brush. The McCann postings stretched the moderating resources too far,
the moderators told me. They were concerned about the number of
postings they were deleting and they were aware that people were
frustrated. All things considered, a decision was made to close threads
down. Roughly 1 in 5 of the postings to one piece were deleted and the
decision to stop the discussion there was understandable, but I’m not
persuaded that it was justified in the other cases…"

Butterworth goes on to explain that, where difficult subjects are raised by a post, users should be warned in advance that the rules are likely to be strictly enforced and, of this advice is ignored, the discussion can and will be shut down. Anything else – that is, not allowing comments on a post just because people might break the rules of discussion rather than because people have broken them "puts the punishment before the crime."

[Read Siobhain Butterworth’s Full Post]