Caven blog

How serious can defamation on your blog really be?

Jail serious, that’s how serious.

Stuart Syvret, a politician and former Health Minister of Jersey, was sentenced to three months’ imprisonment on 4th November in connection with material published on his blog. He had made grave allegations against a nurse in a hospital with a high death rate, and against several individuals regarding historic child abuse in Jersey care homes.

In 2010 he was convicted under the Data Protection (Jersey) Law 2005, and his recent imprisonment comes after he repeatedly refused to remove the offending online material.

The original case

The judge in Syvret’s 2010 conviction described his allegations as “highly defamatory”. However, none of the individuals concerned pursued a defamation claim against him. Rather, he was convicted under data protection law in proceedings initiated by Emma Martins, the Data Protection Commissioner for Jersey.

It was alleged that Syvret broke the law by disclosing personal data on his blog without consent, and failing to treat sensitive data fairly. In fact, data protection law is typically used to prevent organisations abusing data held, for example, on their employees or customers.

Controversially, the Jersey court decided that the law could apply to material published online by private individuals and accordingly Syvret was found guilty. His defence that the disclosure was in the public interest was not accepted.

What about here in the UK?

So could ordinary bloggers or social network users be caught out under data protection law here in the UK?

While in theory the UK equivalent of the Jersey law (the Data Protection Act 1998) could apply to allegations and statements about others made online by private individuals, this would be a highly contentious evolution of the law.

In addition, it should be borne in mind that Stuart Syvret is well known in Jersey as a thorn in the side of the establishment with a history of making serious allegations against high profile figures. This may be part of the reason that he attracted the attention of Jersey’s data protection authorities.

On the other hand, the law on defamation can, and has been, used against ordinary internet users. Defamation involves publishing statements (which can include those made on blogs or even verbally) that damage someone’s reputation.

This does not include fair comments made without malice, and claims that can be proved. A new defence of “reasonable publication in matters of public interest” was introduced under the Defamation Act 2013.

In practice however, scientists, academics and journalists are perhaps more able to take advantage of this than normal bloggers and internet commentators.

How bad can the fine be?

If you are subject to a successful claim for defamation the costs can be very serious. As well as paying damages for financial loss caused by damage to reputation (potentially enormous if the victim is famous), courts can make you pay “exemplary damages” if your statements are considered especially malicious or reckless.

Defamation law does not stand in the way of honestly held opinions, robust comments and even insults. However, all internet users should be highly wary of making unsubstantiated claims about someone that could damage their reputation.

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