Web site error costs Herald £25k

The Sunday Herald is deciding whether to put a discussion forum back on its website after having to pay out £25,000 over a defamatory comment made on it by an anonymous author, writes Sarah Lagan.

The section of the site has been suspended for 18 months since the offending statement was posted falsely, claiming that former NATO secretary general George Robertson was involved in a cover-up over the Dunblane school massacre.

In February last year, Robertson contacted Herald editor Andrew Jaspan, who apologised and within 15 minutes ensured the offending material was removed. Robertson subsequently asked for £200,000 damages.

In April 2004, the Scottish Media Group sold the Sunday Herald to Newsquest, at which time both groups wanted to pursue the action. However, to put a cap on escalating legal costs, a decision was made to make a tender payment into court of £25,000 – which Robertson accepted last week.

If the case had gone ahead, it would have been a landmark case for Scotland, helping to define whether or not newspapers are responsible for anonymous contributions on a website.

Section 1 of the Defamation Act 1996 allows for a defence of innocent dissemination if the Sunday Herald could prove that it was not the author or editor of the defamatory statement and that it did not know it was in circulation.

Jaspan said it would be near impossible to monitor the site, as the paper was already understaffed.

He said: “The constant question for us is how to make ourselves more relevant to the reader, and key to this change is the internet. We want to provoke debate but were the innocent victim and now have to be ultracautious about our next step.

“We conducted ourselves responsibly with our forums. Despite acting responsibly, despite taking the material off the site instantly and despite giving an apology, we still found ourselves being subject to this payout. This is a real setback for a newspaper to do its job.”

An SMG spokesman said the company would decline to comment on the decision not to pursue the case, as it no longer owned the publication.

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