Archive for October, 2010

Libel on the Web

Many website owners will be studying a legal decision issued in London this week, after the Digital Trends site from the US was ordered to pay £50,000 for allowing comments that libelled a company.

The irony is that under US law the company could not have been liable for allegations posted on its discussion threads. Under the Communications Decency Act the only possible defendant in libel litigation is the, frequently anonymous, poster.

The claimant company trades as Train2Game and SkillsTrain and provides distance learning courses in computer games design and IT and book-keeping. It sued Digital Trends over allegations made on discussion threads suggesting that it operated fraudulently.

To make matters worse the thread title,”Train2Game New Scam…”, came up in Google searches for the claimant. An attempt to join Google as a defendant in the case failed last year, when it was held that the search engine was not responsible for defamatory statements produced in its search results.

The defamed company may not actually be able to get its money from a US site, but it does now have a high court judgment which says that allegations published on the Digital Trends website are false and an award of damages high enough to represent vindication.

£50,000 seems like a very high settlement as companies, unlike individuals who sue for libel, are not entitled to compensation for hurt and humiliation (they have no feelings) and this usually means lower awards for damages.

But in this case the company argues successfully that untrue allegations made on a website that claims two million visitors a month substantially damaged its trading position. It also argued that other websites had quoted the allegations and that potential customers had been lost because of the statements made. Their courses cost £5,000 each, so a claim of 10 lost students would perhaps seem reasonable.

Website publishers will note that the award might have been lower had Digital Trends removed the offending comments when their libellous nature became clear. But it failed to do so.

There is actually no new law here, just an extension of existing legal principles. But the idea that a website owner can be held liable for comments made by users of its services on discussion forums is now clearly established in law.

And that might make many who run such forums look more carefully at exactly what their users are posting.


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The Tommy Sheridan libel case is perhaps the top legal news of the week in Scotland. But there have been some other interesting legal stories of late.

Take the tale of nineteen year old Aaron Mitchell, who got himself into hot water when he decided to make a prank telephone call.

But rather than take a lesson from the Simpsons and call a local bar looking for Amada Hugandkiss or even Hugh Jass, he decided to call Lt Commander Mandy McBain at HMS Excellent Royal Navy Command Headquarters. And, after smoking some cannabis, Mitchell left a message threatening to blow the ship up.

Lt Commander McBain immediately reported the incident to base security, who in turn contacted the police. They managed to track Mitchell down pretty easily, as he made one crucial mistake …

He left his telephone number with his message!

Mitchell ended up in Portsmouth Crown Court, where he pleaded guilty to making a bomb threat. His lawyer David Richards told the court that it had all been a joke. “This offence was committed while he was intoxicated with cannabis – an act of gross stupidity that he now regrets.” 

But the judge failed to see the funny side and sentenced Mitchell to 16 weeks in prison.

Then there was the New Yorker who was arrested for drink driving – on the back of a lawn mower.

Barry Foster ran out of booze, so he decided to ride his lawn mower to the local liquor store to buy some more. Unfortunately for him, police caught him on the way back to his home in Swan Lake, New York.

Foster was taken to hospital and his driving license has been suspended.

But my favourite story comes from France.

An enterprising gang of thieves in Villeneuve-les-Beziers broke into a vineyard and stole a farmer’s entire crop of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes.

They picked a night with a full moon and used a harvesting machine to seize 30 tonnes of grapes from the isolated vinyard. The farmer, Roland Cavaille, of Languedoc-Roussillon, one of France’s best-known wine growing regions, said the theft amounted to a whole year’s work.

One witness reported hearing engine noises in the early hours of the morning and police have been examining footprints left at the scene, according to a local newspaper.

But just what do you do with 30 tonnes of grapes??

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To View or Not To View?

I originally wrote this article back in 2009. I have a feeling that the issue is about to become a topical one in Scottish football.

Yesterday afternoon’s Confederations Cup match between Brazil and Egypt was quite a spectacle. After 90 minutes the score was level at 3-3, with the African underdogs having recovered from a 3-1 deficit against the Samba stars.

But the game will be long remembered for what happened next.

As the clock ticked into added time, Brazil were awarded a corner. The ball was crossed into the area and Brazilian captain Lucio shot for goal. But the ball was blocked on the line by the arm of defender Ahmed El Mohamady, who immediately fell to the ground clutching his face – a clear attempt to con the referee.

And for a moment it appeared that his con trick had worked as English referee Howard Webb pointed for another corner rather than a penalty. A crowd scene ensued around the apparently stricken defender, with his team mates calling for treatment, while the Brazilians appealed for a penalty.

Webb then appeared to communicate with someone via his mic and earpiece, before finally making the correct decision by awarding the penalty and sending off the mendacious Egyptian. It appeared that his decision was made after consultation with an official who had viewed the incident on TV.

The crucial question is: was the referee correct to make a decision based on tv evidence?

Egypt complained after the match that a decision had been taken that was outwith the laws of the game. As Egypt coach Gharib Chawki correctly stated “As far as I am aware there is no rule allowing video evidence.”

The rules are indeed clear. The referee is in sole charge of the match and must make decisions based on what he and his assistants see. There is no TV replay system in football. Perhaps there should be, as it works successfully in many other sports? Indeed, but that’s an argument for another day.

Clearly a just outcome was arrived at: Brazil got their penalty and the offender was dismissed. However, the rules of the game, which the referee must of course uphold, say that the decision was made incorrectly.

So do two wrongs make a right? Should a decision made in direct contravention of the laws of the game stand because the ends justified the means? Should cheats really never prosper?

It feels like one of those courtroom dramas where everyone knows that the accused is guilty, but his clever defence lawyer then argues successfully that crucial evidence should be ruled inadmissible on a technicality. Is justice truly served in this instance?

What did FIFA, football’s governing body, make of the Egyptian complaint? Well, true to form for bureaucracies worldwide they fudged the matter!

A FIFA spokesman said: “A thorough analysis revealed that the decision in question was achieved through teamwork between the match referee and his assistant referee … who confirmed the offence to the referee from his clear viewing angle.”

Now that, quite frankly, is nonsense. The linesman (I refuse to use the newfangled term assistant referee) was in no position to see the incident. He was on the opposite side of the pitch with at least two players blocking his view of the incident.

No, this is a cop out from FIFA. The referee was clearly advised by someone watching on TV. The BBC commentators at the time thought so, and players have been confirmed this. “The referee didn’t see the penalty and the linesman didn’t see it either. It looks like the fourth official told him over the radio,” said striker Luis Fabiano.

To continue the legal analogy: a just decision was made on evidence that was inadmissible. But does that render the eventual verdict unsafe?

What do you think?

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It is a myth that depression affects women more frequently than men. The truth is simply that women are far better at seeking treatment.

So how can men be encouraged to come forward in order to receive the help they need? And can GPs do more to make it easier?

These issues will be discussed at a conference to be held in Glasgow in December. The “Men and Depression” conference is being organised jointly by the Men’s Health Forum Scotland and Bipolar Scotland.

Speakers from the health services and the voluntary sector will discuss the reasons behind the situation and a carer will give a female perspective on the issue. There will be a number of workshops before a final plenary discussion, where the results of a survey on the subject will be announced.

Men are just as likely to suffer from mental illness as women but are far more likely to kill themselves: the highest suicide risk group in the UK is now men aged between 40 and 49. And three quarters of those who commit suicide are male.

The current economic situation could well make the situation worse, with job losses and financial pressures adding to the stress that many men already experience.

Men also react differently to depression. While depressed women can turn in on themselves, men suffering from the illness can become animated, aggressive and angry.

Middle-aged men are also far less likely to talk to friends and relatives about their feelings. Real men don’t cry, after all. Many rely heavily on their partner, which can push them towards marital breakdown and further isolation.

Research carried out in England by the mental health charity Mind also concluded that many men see doctors’ surgeries as “feminised” premises where they felt unwelcome.

The growth of well woman clinics and highly successful campaigns on breast and cervical cancer has had beneficial effects on women’s health. But perhaps the down side is that men are now losing out.

The chairman of the Royal College of General Practitioners, Professor Steve Field, has said that doctors are aware of the problems. “I don’t think it is GPs missing the symptoms, as much as people not coming forward, he said.

The “Men and Depression” conference will take place on 9 December in the Radission Blu Hotel on Argyle Street in Glasgow. It should be an interesting and informative day.

For further details, and to register for the conference, go to http://mhfs.org.uk/

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Too many local authorities?

Eight local authorities in the West of Scotland have agreed to prioritise sharing services in waste management, social transport, health and social care and support services. It is estimated that this will save up to £70 million.

And while it makes sense to look for savings in light of the government’s recent spending cuts, perhaps more radical solutions could be considered.

Do we really need 32 different local authorities in Scotland? Or could we look at greater efficiency savings with mergers leading to a smaller number of councils?

The proposed shared services model comes from the eight councils that make up the Clyde Valley Community Planning Partnership – Glasgow, North and South Lanarkshire, East and West Dunbartonshire, Renfrewshire, East Renfrewshire and Inverclyde. Between them they have a combined budget of £6.5 billion and responsibility for one-third of the country’s population

In other areas of the country there are similar discussions, and some of these relate to core services. Midlothian and East Lothian councils are discussing merging their education and social work departments, for example.

There have been several reorganisations of Scottish local government over the years, the last coming in 1996. Nine Regional Councils and 53 District Councils were abolished and replaced by 32 all-purpose, or unitary, authorities.

The largest authority is Glasgow City with a population of over 500,000, and the smallest of the mainland councils is Midlothian with just 80,000 people.

The reasons for the differing sizes of authority – and for some of the very strange boundaries – are political rather than practical. The key driver for the last reorganisation was the abolition of the large Regional Councils, which were thought to be too powerful by the Thatcher government.

And several of the boundaries were drawn in such a way as to create authorities that the Tories thought they could control. In reality it worked out differently, but that was their plan as boundaries were gerrymandered.

Now that money is so tight in the public sector, is it not time to take a proper look at how local government services can best be delivered?

Why have two Lanarkshire authorities, two Dunbartonshire councils or three each in Lothian and Ayrshire? Is there any good reason to split East Renfrewshire from the rest of Renfrewshire?

A system with a smaller number of larger local authorities makes perfect sense to me.

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Pirates or Robin Hoods?

There are thought to be thousands of streams showing football matches illegally on the web at any time. Most of these are shut down very quickly although some do survive.

But are these services stealing the work of broadcasters or making football available to those who cannot afford satellite subscriptions?

Both the Scottish Premier League and the English Premier League use a company called NetResult to hunt down illegal streams.

Christopher Stokes, chief executive of NetResult, recently said: “In the past two years we have taken down over 80,000 illegal football streams. We have a team of 25 people and we actively search for streams to take down.”

It is a criminal offence to stream a UK broadcast, and there have been prosecutions. And under EU law it is a civil offence to stream a game from another European country. But there is little that can be done if the stream comes from outside the EU, which is why many sites use feeds from Middle Eastern broadcasters.

The Sunday Herald interviewed a John Newton from Glasgow (not his real name obviously), who is an administrator of a streaming site which he claims averages 200,000 visitors every Saturday afternoon.

Newton likened sharing a broadcast on the internet to inviting a crowd of people to his house to watch a game televised by Sky. He pays for a subscription and then allows many people to watch it. Newton added, “We are making football available to the average working man who has been priced out of seeing it through the Sky mark-up, or enabling them to see content that ordinarily they wouldn’t be able to see.”

Illegal streams take money out of sport according to those in charge of running the various leagues. But can an alternative be established that would reduce demand for pirate services?

At one time live football was a two or three times a season treat. Now there are dozens of games on every week. But is demand being met? And can the leagues use new technologies to provide a cheap alternative to fans who cannot actually get along to watch their team in action?

In time internet television may well become the most common medium for sports fans. But can the clubs and governing bodies move quickly enough to ensure that they are the ones running the show and not the pirates?

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Nick Clegg has been busy over the past few days defending his involvement in the cuts announced by George Osborne.

Many long term Liberals would have been appalled at the spectacle of Clegg heartily slapping the Chancellor on the back after his announcement. And it is becoming clearer that Clegg is actually an enthusiastic supporter of the government’s economic policies, which he opposed during the election.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies has said that poorer families with children will be the “biggest losers”. But Clegg told the Guardian that the IFS’s definition of fairness was “complete nonsense”. He argued that money wasn’t the only way to measure the lives of the less well off, as they have public services to help them too.

Those would be the public services you’ve just cut, wouldn’t they, Mr Clegg? And only a millionaire could disregard the impact that money, or the lack of it, has on people’s lives.

In the wake of Wednesday’s announcement, Clegg claimed that, “Our values and priorities are written through the review, like the message in a stick of rock.”

But what influence did the Deputy Prime Minister and his colleagues actually have on the package of cuts agreed by the coalition government?

They certainly didn’t act to defend the poor. They didn’t stop the Tories making an additional £7 billion of cuts to the welfare budget – on top of the £11 billion already cut in the emergency budget.

And the fine details of the spending cuts shows that the Lib Dems claims to have secured additional funding for education are actually untrue, according to Treasury figures.

The pupil premium will not be new and additional money, but will “sit within” a schools budget that, once increases in pupil numbers are taken into account, will see spending per pupil falling in real terms over the spending period.

So there is no real growth in the schools budget, but actually a cut in funding.

The issue of additional funding to schools was a Lib Dem manifesto pledge, not that they seem to mean anything now that the party is in government. And the pupil premium has been used by Clegg to demonstrate that he had driven a hard bargain in the coalition negotiations.

But it has now all come to nothing,

So where does this leave the Liberal Democrats?

The party has already thrown its economic policies in the bin. It has turned its back on a pledge signed by MPs to abolish tuition fees for students and will support Tory plans to increase fees. And now its commitment to education has been shown to be nothing more than empty words.

Here’s a question.

If David Cameron had secured a majority in the election and been able to govern without the need for Clegg and co, would anything have looked different?

Frankly, I very much doubt it. Nick Clegg and his colleagues in government have effectively been subsumed into the Tory party.

Clegg has even been on Desert Island Discs this weekend. He claimed that supporting the cuts had been “morally difficult” and that he had “searched long and hard into my own conscience about whether what we are doing is for the right reasons.”

The notion of Clegg on a desert island is growing increasingly more appealing,

With his party routinely scoring at around 12% in the opinion polls, Nick Clegg must see that the public are turning against the Lib Dems. Their support for drastic Tory cuts while binning manifesto commitments as they go has left many supporters of the party feeling dispirited and betrayed.

And Lib Dem councillors and representatives in the devolved countries will be the ones to pay the price when it is time to go to the polling booths again next year.

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