An Apology to Seth Freedman?

Seth Freedman is a British blogger, who has moved to Israel, from where he has contributed a series of articles to Comment is Free. Most of the articles he has written in the last year or so, are of the sort which are customarily described as “brave”.

I was not entirely surprised to see the following on the Jerusalem Post website:

The Jerusalem Post would like to apologize to Seth Freedman for certain comments that appeared on our site following a September 1 blog entry written by Edwin Bennatan that were defamatory, threatening, and inappropriate.

The Jerusalem Post apologizes for any distress caused to Mr. Freedman, expresses its sincere regret that such a situation was allowed to occur, and will endeavour to prevent any recurrence.

A donation will be made by the Jerusalem Post to a charity of Mr Freedman’s choice.

What I assume has happened, is that somebody has written something unpleasant and vicious about Seth Freedman in a comment on a Jerusalem Post blog item. I do not know whether Seth Freedman asked the Jerusalem Post to remove the comment, and threatened to sue only when they refused to do so; or whether the threat came ‘out of the blue’. However, a newspaper does not usually publish an apology, and donate money to charity without the encouragement a lawyers’ letter.

I don’t think it is unreasonable to ask somebody to remove an abusive or threatening comment from a website. I have removed such comments myself from this website, when I have been asked to do so by the subject of the comment, and sometimes even by the person who made the offensive comment in the first place. People often write things in haste behind keyboards that later make them feel ashamed of themselves.

Seth Freedman recently wrote to me to draw my attention to a particularly unpleasant comment by a nasty piece of work. I removed that post, which I had not seen. Seth’s response was that I shouldn’t have troubled myself to do so now, and that my failure to have noticed the offensive post before he drew it to my attention demonstrated that it didn’t bother me.

I have also refused to remove comments. A few months ago, a semi-professional exhibitionist called Deborah Fink copied me into a round robin, with Greenstein, Machover, and a few others. In this email carousel, she demanded I remove certain posts, which she did not identify, but which she claimed were libellous. It turned out that what she regarded as defamatory, was a comment by a poster who speculated that she was mentally ill. As the comment was on a post in which Ms Fink was singing loudly through a megaphone about being a ‘self hating Jew’, before being bundled off by the police while screaming ‘fascist’ at them, I decided that there was no cause to delete the observation. I did not mention these events at the time, because I got the impression that Deborah Fink wanted me to give her the opportunity to engage in public hystrionics, and I wanted no part in that. I’m kind of sorry that I have mentioned it now.

Anyhow, what of this apology?

I am not a fan of the blogification of newspapers. The comments threads of almost any paper which allows that facility on its articles, or on the blogs that it runs, are inevitably filled with the scribblings of bile-filled lunatics. That is all well and good in some contexts: but it has a tendency to tarnish the image of a newspaper. The Guardian has been the worst hit, of course, but others are nearly as bad. The Telegraph hosting a BNP supporting blog was a particularly bad bit of corporate PR. If newspapers are to run blogs or provide comment facilities, then they ought to pre-moderate posts, simply in the interests of maintaining the integrity of their brand. That is a lesson that the Jerusalem Post ought, by now, to have learnt.

The defamation issue is a completely separate one. Generally speaking, people shouldn’t sue for libel. There’s an excellent Simon Raven essay of the subject which I may publish here this weekend. I’m particularly unimpressed that some sort of threat appears to have been made, not in relation to an article published in a newspaper, but in the comments thread of a blog run by a newspaper. I would find it understandable, if a request had been made to remove the threatening and abusive comment, which had been rejected by the newspaper. I suppose it all turns, therefore, on whether a threat to sue was issued before such a request was made

The fact is, blogs are particularly vulnerable to these sorts of action. A good blog develops a community around it. The discussion on blogs, at their best, are better than any political meeting I’ve ever attended. If blogland is to survive, if blogging is not to be the literary equivalent of a dangerous sport, the law ought to be changed, to provide some degree of protection to blogs: at least in terms of the comments on their threads. Until that reform is achieved,  we really ought to refrain from suing.