By Hamish Mackay
NATO General Secretary Lord Robertson has launched a ground-breaking legal action for defamation against the Sunday Herald over allegations posted on the newspaper’s website message board by a reader.
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Lord Robertson has lodged a writ with the Court of Session in Edinburgh demanding £200,000 compensation, plus the full costs of the action, on the grounds that he was falsely accused of helping Thomas Hamilton, the Dunblane killer, obtain his gun licence.
And, in an unusual move, the Sunday Herald this week printed verbatim the posting made on its site.
The writ claims that comments posted on the message board of the Sunday Herald’s website, accusing Lord Robertson of signing a firearms certificate recommendation for Hamilton and using his influence to force the police to ignore their suspicions about the mass murderer, were “false and calumnious”.
Lord Robertson also claims the allegations could hinder his chances of finding another job when he steps down as head of NATO later this year.
The comments, made on the website on 9 February this year, followed an online discussion forum for readers about public concern that documents relating to the Dunblane massacre were to remain classified for 100 years.
The contributor claimed that Lord Robertson had signed a firearms certificate recommendation because he was Thomas Hamilton’s MP.
However, Lord Robertson actually represented Hamilton South, was never Thomas Hamilton’s MP and never signed such a document.
In the writ, it is also alleged that comments by two other contributors on the message board were derogatory. It is claimed that, due to lack of website policing, the offending comments remained on the message board for more than three weeks and were read by an estimated 600,000 people before they were removed.
It is not known if the identity of the individuals who made the statements will be made public, but they are alleged to be registered users of the Sunday Herald message board.
This week the Sunday Herald ran a news story quoting in full the allegations made on its website. The story concluded: “Lord Robertson brought this post to the attention of Andrew Jaspan, the Sunday Herald’s editor.
“The Sunday Herald then acted expeditiously to remove the information. The electronic record of the forums reveals that visitors viewed this post less than 400 times.
“The actual number of visitors is likely to be less as this number includes those who visited the forum before the post was made.”
There has not yet been a test case in Scotland on whether a company is responsible for information posted on internet message boards.
A Scottish legal expert explained: “The nature of the internet means that documents published and uploaded in one country can be viewed and downloaded all over the world, exposing publishers to the libel laws of potentially any nation which provides internet access.”