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United Kingdom: Court decides against a blogger's rights to anonymity

Categories: Western Europe, United Kingdom, Freedom of Speech, Law, Media & Journalism

A new legal precedent has been set for UK bloggers.

Last week, in the England and Wales High Court, Mr Justice Eady ruled [1] that a police officer who previously wrote about his working life on his NightJack blog, did not have the right to remain anonymous.

The claimant – now known to be Detective Constable Richard Horton [2] – had unsuccessfully attempted to get an injunction against The Times newspaper (UK) to stop it naming him. Following the court's ruling Horton has now been issued with a written warning by his police force, the Lancashire Constabulary.

A victory for freedom of expression (The Times’)… or a severe restriction for freedom of expression (anonymous bloggers)? Popular opinion is divided, though a blog search would indicate that blogger opinion veers towards the latter.

NightJack, the judge said, did not “qualify as information in respect of which the Claimant has a reasonable expectation of privacy – essentially because blogging is a public activity”. Eady, who is well-known in the UK for his privacy-protecting rulings, stated:

“Furthermore, even if I were wrong about this, I consider that any such right of privacy on the Claimant's part would be likely to be outweighed at trial by a countervailing public interest in revealing that a particular police officer has been making these communications.”

And the implication for bloggers? “Those who wish to hold forth to the public by this means often take steps to disguise their authorship, but it is in my judgment a significantly further step to argue, if others are able to deduce their identity, that they should be restrained by law from revealing it.”

It's hard to find anyone in the UK (or international) blogosphere overwhelmingly in support of The Times’ ruling; and The Times’ own stories about their battle received severe criticism from commenters, even if, as Malcolm Coles suggests [3], some of the negative comments are a little tricky to find…

Three things to bear in mind for background:

The bloggers and commenters have reacted with force, many personally attacking Patrick Foster, the journalist at the centre of what Eady called the ‘deduction and detective’ process. I've previously rounded up a good mix of links on the Journalism.co.uk Editors’ Blog [7] and my own blog [8] which tell the story, but here are a selection of the best blog posts, which draw out interesting nuances. Opinions include:

This is just a summary of a complicated debate. Perhaps the court's decision has surprised onlookers so much because it happened in the UK. We're not living in a repressive autocracy with threatening media laws. While we have stringent libel laws, our freedom of expression extends far more widely than it does for many societies. Perhaps more than it does for most nations in the world – not least because the English language is understood by so many. Yet an award-winning blogger, whose voice, it could be argued, aided the democratic process (see Seaton's article [4]), was not able to stay nameless.

To what extent it affects UK bloggers’ future privacy and right to anonymity remains to be seen. I shall report back. In the meantime, all those who are blogging anonymously might do well to take a look at Global Voices Advocacy's guidelines [18] … then they might stand a chance of keeping it that way. Perhaps taking up jiu-jitsu in a Lancashire town [7], and then writing about it, was a reckless decision on Horton's part.

Please do add any other good links below.