Dangers lie in readers' comments

Imagine if your publication used 20 pages of Letters to the Editor every week – and none of them were subbed.

It’s enough to make any editor reach for the tranquillisers – and the telephone, to call the lawyers. But in fact many newspapers and magazines do use pages and pages of unsubbed ‘letters’ – in the public areas of their websites.

A surf around some newspaper websites the other week revealed one where a senior councillor was called a “tosser”; one where readers had been invited to comment on an active court case, and another where a drink-driver was described as “dribbling, sub-human scum”.

None of these examples would stand a chance of being used in the papers. So is the internet really a place where the usual law of libel, contempt of court and the PCC Code don’t apply?

Jonathan Crusher, partner in the media team at the law firm Farrer & Co, said: “There is a great deal of uncertainty about who will be held responsible for what is published on the internet.

“The absence of judicial guidance can be a real problem when advising clients of the risks they face.”

Websites need to beware inviting people to comment on active cases crimes. Some web editors use templates that automatically invite readers to comment on each story.

These can be dangerous if court cases or crimes are uploaded on to them.

If a reader makes uninvited comments where there are active proceedings, the web editor may have the defence of Innocent Publication.

This is provided it does not edit the site.

The editor and the proprietor would be liable if a complainant of any type of sexual offence was named or identified on the website by a reader.

But it would be a defence if the web editor could prove that at time of publication they were not aware, and neither suspected nor had reason to suspect, that the publication included the matter in question.

So, if the web editor does not edit the content, the site maybe safe from prosecution.

Your archive may contain the name, address or photograph of someone who subsequently becomes the victim of a sexual offence.

This should not be a problem, provided the details are not republished or a link provided to them.

What if a reader names an under-18 involved in court a case or a crime, on a site’s reader forum? This would breach the Children and Young Persons Act 1933.

However, under the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999, it is a defence that the publisher did not know that the name and other details were included.

It is also a defence if the web editor can prove there was no reason to suspect that a criminal investigation had begun at the time the posting took place.

These defences could be available to the web editor if the site is not edited.

It should not be a problem if the details are archived. But republishing them, or creating a new link to them, could be seen as contempt.

The PCC Code now covers all contributors to newspaper and magazine websites. And contributors include bloggers and readers ­– whether or not the site is edited.

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