Accusations and Allegations — Are you Writing Responsibly?

Writing respons­ibly is something that the vast major­ity of on-line writers and bloggers do instinct­ively, without any train­ing, on the other hand there are some writers that think every nugget of inform­a­tion must be passed on to the whole world without a thought (or perhaps care) for the damage public­a­tion may cause.

Just what is responsible writing?

It is always wise to start a subject as complex as this with a defin­i­tion. Responsibility is “The state or duty to deal with something or of having control over someone and being account­able (or to blame) for something that happens” and by defin­i­tion there is moral oblig­a­tion to behave correctly when in posses­sion of certain knowledge or inform­a­tion, especially when it relates to anoth­er person who could be harmed by accus­a­tions made.

Responsible by Photoshotter24 CC0 Public Domain from Pixabay        There is also a differ­ence between accus­ing a person of something and making state­ments about an organ­isa­tion, a business, a charity, or govern­ment body, with the latter it is gener­ally considered the public right to know may be overwhelm­ing, yet precau­tions should be taken before publish­ing anything.

In some respects it may be considered as acting respons­ibly to publish inform­a­tion that every person on the planet should be aware of on sites like Wikileaks, yet there is often a fine line between doing right and doing wrong. Where leaking mater­i­al could for example be defined as treas­on­able and wheth­er right or wrong there can be valid arguments made in either direc­tion. Documents are one thing and valid arguments can be made in either direc­tion, but when public­a­tion relates to a person then it will likely have a differ­ent impact. Publishing private person­al inform­a­tion about a public figure that nobody needs to know.

Is there a duty for the writer to inform the public or consider that person’s privacy? Which takes prior­ity? This can lead to complex legal questions.

Accusations and Allegations

It is all too easy to publish accus­a­tions and alleg­a­tions about people, partic­u­larly those who have attrac­ted the atten­tion of the public, the writer has a social respons­ib­il­ity to consider the words they publish and question wheth­er or not they are hurtful, it is easy to accuse but much harder to check facts.

Journalists, even those who work for trashy newspa­pers, go through an educa­tion about the code of ethics of the things that may, or may not, be published. The modern blogger or on-line writer has no such educa­tion, yet in many respects they take the part of on-line journ­al­ists and some writers are driven by the need to make money and are prepared to publish any snippet they can get hold of, but should they? 

Making unsub­stan­ti­ated accus­a­tions about people, wheth­er they are celebrit­ies, politi­cians, or notable people may seem trendy and cool but may breach their civil liber­ties, right to privacy or may be considered libelous and even when the facts can be proven to be true and in the worst case will involve expenses that the average blogger can NOT afford. Newspapers do frequently publish libelous mater­i­al, but here the manage­ment, lawyers, and editors calcu­late the likely uplift in sales versus the likely amount they will probably pay in damages before publish­ing. This is a risk few on-line writers can afford.

Simply because you have access to inside inform­a­tion about a person does not mean you should go ahead and publish, caution is required in sensit­ive posts, you must consider their privacy versus the right of the world to know and as a gener­al guideline is it best to be cautious.

Legal Considerations

Gag OrderThe legal concerns around writing are primar­ily driven by the follow­ing areas:

  • Plagiarising, copying and quoting
  • Access to private inform­a­tion
  • Defaming anoth­er person

In the on-line world what rules apply and how they are controlled will greatly depend on the location of:

  • The person whose rights have been breached
  • The person who wrote the article
  • The website owner.

Assuming each of these parties are in differ­ent countries then it may complic­ate legal action, but it any of those parties are in the United States the penal­ties can rise signi­fic­antly should the aggrieved person wins their case. Contrary to popular belief, rights under the US First Amendment do not provide a license to break the law in order to obtain inform­a­tion, any writers that trespass, wiretap or violate other laws that apply are not immune from prosec­u­tion simply because they were gather­ing inform­a­tion for a public interest news story. The US Supreme Court has repeatedly impugned those for breach­ing laws.

The Freest Press ever?

         As mentioned before most bloggers have no educa­tion about the legal limits of journ­al­ism. In some respects this is good because they are free to raise questions that challenge society in a way that that a journ­al­ist will never do. The journ­al­ist will think about the continu­ity of their employ­ment, something that the blogger arguably does not worry about.

Whilst the US Bill of Rights, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (under Article 19) may give every person the right to hold an opinion without inter­fer­ence and say what they wish, there are still the rights of other people that writers should consider before publish­ing their words. This whole area can be a balan­cing act of rights partic­u­larly in relation to “inter­fer­ence with his privacy, family, home or corres­pond­ence”  (Article 12, UDHR). A writer must be seen as credible, present evidence that the things they say are true, without such evidence and a law suit can easily follow.

Generally speak­ing Blogs and on-line publish­ing sites are part of the freest press that human­ity has known. Rumour, innuendo and gossip are things that profes­sion­al hard-news report­ers gener­ally avoid, yet bloggers live happily in this space, but should they? Remember the well used phrase ‘with great freedom comes great respons­ib­il­ity’. The writer should think about the things they write and avoid ground­less alleg­a­tions, the job of the on-line writer is arguably tough­er than the journ­al­ist because of the ability of the hyper-link, if evidence exists then it should already be published and a link should be set-up other­wise they are tread­ing the path of rumour, innuendo, or gossip.

Privacy

Right to privacy is one of the most complex dilem­mas that is found in writing, we live in a society where each person has rights that need to be protec­ted. This right to privacy versus the public’s right to know is one of the most complex questions profes­sion­al public­a­tions face. Here a major ethic­al question exists about how to balance respect for privacy rights with the need for legit­im­ate invest­ig­a­tion. This question is as valid for the blogger as it is for the journ­al­ist. A person close to the target of a crimin­al invest­ig­a­tion, for example, may be able to tell all through their blog, but they may be placing themselves in great­er danger.

I have seen only a few bloggers breach these guidelines, but many more come very close to doing so, partic­u­larly by making unsub­stan­ti­ated accus­a­tions against politi­cians or stars. This is one of the differ­ences between on-line writers and journ­al­ists, the blogger has no editor, no publish­er, nor in-house lawyers to stop the article from being published, however ultimately each writer must provide their own process of checks and balances to protect their blog.

About Peter B. Giblett CITP, LLB(Hons)

        Peter B. Giblett is a non-practising lawyer and is here provid­ing an opinion, not legal advice. If you need specif­ic advice on any issue discussed here you should engage a lawyer to help you.

 

 

Buy Peter B. Giblett a coffee as a thank you for his  contri­bu­tion about some legal issues writers must consider. All images used here are either created or owned by Peter Giblett or have been sourced from a public domain location, such as Pixabay.

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2 Comments

  1. This post isn’t talking about censor­ship, it is talking about respons­ib­il­ity, think­ing about wheth­er a person­al accus­a­tion should be made.

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