A CiF Watcher recently informed us that every one of the comments beneath the line of Glenn Greenwald’s two Woolwich terror attack related commentaries disappeared without warning.
Greenwald’s posts (‘Was the London killing of a British soldier ‘terrorism‘?’, May 23, and ‘Andrew Sullivan, terrorism and the art of distortion‘, May 25) both elicited an extremely large volume of comments, all of which at some point disappeared, prompting Greenwald to write the following beneath the posts.
For reasons I’ll let the Guardian explain, all of the comments to all of the columns and articles posted on the London attack were deleted, and the comment sections then closed. I hope that won’t happen to today’s column here, as the topics discussed here are not really about the attack but the broader debate about terrorism. But it’s possible that it will happen again. Those wanting to post comments should be aware of this possibility before spending your time and energy to write one.
Additionally, the comment function seems to have been turned off on every other Woolwich related commentary we could find at CiF, even beneath a post by the Guardian’s readers’ editor Chris Elliott which addressed the paper’s coverage of the attack.
Below Greenwald’s brief explanation, the Guardian has added the following:
Comments have been removed for legal reasons. Further explanation of UK law around active court cases here
The link takes you to a post by Bella Mackie, from over a year ago, titled ‘Why we sometimes turn off comments‘, which cites the Guardian’s director of editorial legal services, Gill Phillips. Here is his explanation:
As publishers we are legally responsible for all the output that we produce whether it be news stories, comment above or below the line, and our tweets etc. This applies equally to matters of contempt as it does to matters of defamation.
Section 1 of the Contempt of Court Act 1981 states that it is a contempt of court to publish material that creates a substantial risk of serious prejudice in proceedings from the period that a defendant is arrested to the date that they are sentenced or found not guilty of an offence. This is known as the active period. This provision is designed to ensure that people get a fair trial and applies once anyone has been arrested. Section 1 creates a “strict liability” offence, so intent is irrelevant.
Legally speaking, charging a suspect has no particular significance in terms of what can or cannot be reported because the active period starts on arrest. Practically speaking however, it can be said that the risks of adversely affecting a trial increase once someone has been charged, particularly with a serious offence because (i) you know there will be a trial; and (ii) you know that the trial will be before a jury; (iii) and you know that the trial will take place sooner rather than later. The closer the trial gets, arguably the greater the risk because matter will start to stick in the minds of potential jurors.
The sort of matters that traditionally have been held to be in contempt include (i) publishing anything that suggests the defendants are in fact guilty or prejudges the outcome; (ii) publishing “bad character” material or previous convictions about them; (iii) publishing derogatory matter about them; (iv) publishing any material/evidence which it is possible the jury would not be told about.
We have to be particularly cautious about tweets and about “below the line” discussions of matters which are not pre-moderated and where we cannot expect members of the public to know the subtleties of the law of contempt.
There is a defence to contempt for “fair and accurate” court reports that protects us for example in terms of reporting the Leveson inquiry, providing we do so “fairly and accurately”. Often below-the-line comments do not simply “fairly and accurately” report what was said as opposed to passing comment on it so, as we have responsibilities as the publisher of all the material on our website (whether above or below the line), we do have to be very careful about allowing comments on Leveson pieces that touch on or refer to anyone who has been arrested. Generally speaking therefore, given that we would not want to run the risk of prejudicing someone’s right to a fair trial, it is sensible for us to maintain a situation where we restrict comments on pieces once people have been arrested because of the dangers of people posting prejudicial remarks.”
Mackie then adds additional possible reasons why CiF may turn comments off, none of which seem to apply in this case.
So, did the Guardian remove all of the comments beneath Greenwald’s commentary – and turn off comments for the other Woolwich related CiF pieces – for fear of prejudicing the future trial of Michael Olumide Adebolajo and the other suspects?
Greenwald has been uncharacteristically silent about the matter on Twitter, but we’ll do our best to try keeping you updated on this strange decision by Guardian editors as more facts become available.
UPDATE: ‘Comment is Free’ editor Natalie Hanman just posted an explanation why comments were turned off for the Woolwich related commentary. Here it is:
There has been some confusion from commenters as to why we have turned off the ability to comment on Comment is free articles about the Woolwich attack. In an ideal world, we would allow our readers to debate all of the articles we run on the site, but we felt it was sensible for us to restrict comments on these pieces because once people have been arrested there is a risk of contempt of court if users post prejudicial remarks about the case. Following consultation with our lawyers and community moderators, we will endeavour from now on, where resources allow, to have one premoderated thread on the topic open each day. Today’s article from Boya Dee is here.
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