An unprecedented coalition of British bloggers has come together over the last two weeks to fight an assault on freedom of speech from Russian oligarch Alisher Usmanov.
Lawyers acting for the Uzbek billionaire, who recently bought a large stake in Arsenal Football Club, took exception to allegations made by former UK ambassador to Uzbekistan Craig Murray on his popular blog. However, instead of attempting to prosecute Murray for libel, Usmanov’s lawyers, Schillings, went to Fasthosts, the company hosting Murray’s blog. Under pressure, Fasthosts cancelled the account overseeing Murray’s website bringing the site down.
This had several unintended consequences. Firstly, the cancelled account also looked after several other websites which were also removed. These included those of popular Labour blogger, Councillor Bob Piper, and prominent web activist and campaigner Tim Ireland. Most damaging from a PR point of view, the website of the Conservative candidate for London Mayor, Boris Johnson, was also pulled.
News of the closure of these blogs spread quickly across the blogosphere. Being a friend of Tim Ireland and a blogger myself, I was asked to post on my own blog the reasons for Tim, Murray and the rest going missing.
From there things took on a life of their own. Within 24 hours, over 100 bloggers were linking to my blog, condemning the actions of Schillings and Fasthosts. Mentions on Slashdot, massively popular technology-related news, and many Arsenal fan web forums, saw my blog receiving thousands of visitors as the story spread.
Anonymous blogs repeating Murray’s allegations about Usmanov sprang up. The allegations have been repeated in over 500 separate locations. Schillings boast on their website of being able to starve stories of the ‘oxygen of publicity’ on behalf of their clients. On this occasion, that strategy failed spectacularly. Hundreds of thousands of people, many previously unaware of who Usmanov and Murray were, have now heard about the story.
Within a week, the coalition of bloggers had grown to over 300. What was exceptional about the group was its sheer diversity. The range of support across the spectrum was unprecedented in British blogging; from Lenin’s Tomb and Harry’s Place on the left to Tim Worstall and Samizdata on the right. Differences were set aside in order to face a common enemy. Iain Dale, who runs one of the UK’s biggest blogs and has been involved in a long-running feud with Tim Ireland, rallied to Tim’s defence.
It must be emphasised that this is not about bloggers claiming the right to say whatever they like with impunity and without fear of sanction. Bloggers are, rightly so, as accountable for what they write as journalists. Craig Murray is on record as saying he wants Usmanov to sue him for libel so the allegations can be put on the record. In a statement to the Guardian newspaper, a spokesman for Schillings said that they were not about to sue Murray because ‘they did not want to give him a platform to express his views’. Instead of fighting the case in the courts, Schillings tried to make the story go away completely. The allegations may be true, they may be false, but in the absence of a libel trial testing their veracity, thousands of people have formed their own conclusions.
One of the by-products of all this is a fledgling cross-spectrum campaign to seek reform of British libel laws where they pertain to publishing on the Internet. A number of issues are being examined. A 1999 legal precedent, Godfrey v Demon Internet Service, has meant that web host companies are regarded as the publisher of defamatory statements and can be sued accordingly. It’s a patently ridiculous position – like trying to sue the newspaper delivery boy for the contents of his bag – but one that led to Murray et al’s websites being pulled by a nervous web host.
It’s also worth noting that, apart from a handful of mentions in the mainstream press, this story was disseminated entirely via blogs. It’s another sign that British blogging is flourishing in its own right. Other campaigns are springing up, including one to secure UK asylum for those employees of British forces in Iraq who are facing torture and murder at the hands of militias (a campaign meeting attended by MPs from all parties takes place at the Houses of Parliament next week). The Usmanov affair shows that the British blogosphere can drive an issue on its own terms.
Justin McKeating is a Brighton-based writer and blogger. His is blog is at www.chickyog.net