Libel, Censorship and Blog Comments

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I hate the idea of a com­ment policy. The reg­u­lar read­ers are all intel­li­gent enough to make any policy redund­ant. The tiny minor­ity who are delu­sional enough to cause a prob­lem wouldn’t ser­i­ously stop to read any com­ment policy any­way. But occa­sion­ally a per­fectly good com­ment will either dis­ap­pear or fail to appear. Here’s why.

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This is about as close as I'd like to get to a barrister. Photo (cc) Steve Punter.

This is about as close as I’d like to get to a bar­ris­ter. Photo (cc) Steve Punter.

I’ve been busy recently. Hopefully you’ll see the fruits of some of that work shortly, but it means I haven’t had time to write much here. One of the side-effects is that I get email point­ing to some­thing that I should blog about from a few people. For example an arte­fact has turned up some­where which is really dodgy. I’d guess there’s some sort of illegal activ­ity in its sale, but I don’t have the time to research where. Now if I had a forum I could leave it and half-a-dozen other people could have been talk­ing about this on site. One prob­lem though is libel.

If you’re run­ning an auc­tion house, Ponsonby’s for the sake of argu­ment. If you routinely sell unproven­anced antiquit­ies then you really rely on your repu­ta­tion. You don’t need people point­ing out that a large num­ber of Puglian vases you sell are likely to have been illeg­ally excav­ated from Italy (up to 95% of such vases accord­ing to one estim­ate). Nor do you need people high­light­ing that there’s a cot­tage industry in pro­du­cing fake Mycenaean fig­ur­ines. Basically, the biggest guar­an­tee that this stuff is a sound invest­ment is your word and your reputation.

If someone blogs on Puglian vases gen­er­ally, that’s a prob­lem but react­ing to it is a bad idea because it drags your name into an argu­ment about sleaze. If it’s doc­u­mented that you’ve handled stolen goods and a blog­ger men­tions this it’s still a bad idea to leg­ally respond — you’d be repor­ted on widely for legal threats over some­thing which is obvi­ously true. You’d even­tu­ally silence the blog­ger, because the blog­ger wouldn’t be able to afford to defend the case, but you’d be slaughter­ing your own repu­ta­tion in the pro­cess. So a forum would be a place where you could dis­cuss this and help reduce the value of illi­cit antiquit­ies without dam­aging the mar­ket for legal arte­facts. But there’s a prob­lem when you start dis­cuss­ing motive.

Sooner or later someone will point out that Ponsonby’s routinely handles illi­cit mater­ial. It’s entirely human to spec­u­late that if a new undoc­u­mented Puglian vase turns up, Ponsonby’s know it’s prob­ably been excav­ated by organ­ised crime. That’s human, reas­on­able and action­able. At that point you’re assign­ing guilt to Ponsonby’s and dam­aging their repu­ta­tion by say­ing they’re know­ingly enga­ging in crim­inal action by fen­cing stolen goods. Now they have a case worth win­ning, because when they win it will be clear­ing them of crim­inal activ­ity and enhan­cing their repu­ta­tion — iron­ic­ally mak­ing them very attract­ive to any­one else who wants to laun­der artefacts.

That’s why I don’t have a forum. Someone act­ing sens­ibly and reas­on­ably would even­tu­ally put me in a pos­i­tion where I’d have to start delet­ing com­ments because I’d be held leg­ally account­able for whatever snookums538 pos­ted on the site. It might seem like para­noid, but it’s jus­ti­fied paranoia.

For example Martin Schøyen has some incant­a­tion bowls from the Middle East. David Gill and Sam Hardy both men­tioned a debate in the House of Lords earlier this week. An invest­ig­a­tion has stated they were prob­ably illeg­ally removed from Iraq des­pite being, in a very real and legal sense, the prop­erty of Mr Martin Schøyen. I’ve blogged in the past about how much these are very much Martin Schøyen’s prop­erty. In fact he has my sym­pathy as the fact that the invest­ig­a­tion into the ori­gins of these bowls was sup­pressed, by per­sons unknown, could lead someone to mis­takenly think some­thing a bit dodgy is going on. It’s def­in­itely not. I know Mr Schøyen is a fine upstand­ing cit­izen because when I emailed ask­ing for a copy of the report he didn’t reply — thus keep­ing to this out of court settlement.

I sent the email after get­ting a com­ment from a pub­li­cist for the Schøyen Collection. I wrote a blog post which made it clear the bowls were 100% leg­ally the prop­erty of Martin Schøyen. I linked to a news­pa­per art­icle which made it clear that Mr Schøyen had done noth­ing wrong in any way because the bowls were entirely and unques­tion­ably leg­ally his. The com­ment, first after the post, might not be quite as pos­it­ive as mine, but it shows that even on a minor blog art col­lect­ors take their repu­ta­tions very ser­i­ously. But what would hap­pen if someone pos­ted some­thing libel­lous as a com­ment? This is why I use com­ment mod­er­a­tion, cur­rently via Disqus.

Comment mod­er­a­tion is essen­tial for a blog as any­one who’s run one will tell you. For every com­ment by a real per­son, there’s about four by auto­mated sys­tems. These can come in storms. For example a post about the British Chiropractic Association has recently had at least 250 spam­ming attempts in the past twenty-four hours. Without some form of spam­guard I’d be get­ting swamped by junk com­ments. Not all of these com­ments are going to be GET P0RN HER3!!!!!!!. Some will attempt to look nor­mal. If your com­puter gets whitel­is­ted then it bypasses a lot of checks. Laura’s com­ment “Do you really want to know why this is a ter­rible idea? Ask an immun­o­lo­gist.” has given me some prob­lems. It could be genu­ine and immun­o­lo­gists might be opposed to extra­solar astro­nomy. However the non-sequitur sug­gests someone hasn’t read the art­icle, so it could be an attempt by a spam com­puter to pass as nor­mal. Allowing the com­ment to stand marks out a secur­ity hole in this site and maybe that’s why the num­ber of spam attempts has rock­eted. I’ve con­tac­ted the email asso­ci­ated with the com­ment ask­ing if it’s genu­ine and got no reply. That’s why I’m delet­ing it. Another com­mon fea­ture if spam posts is that they have a lot of links. There’s often good reason to include links in com­ments, you’d want to point to some other inform­a­tion maybe. But because of spam­mers Disqus counts the links and deletes. Anything above two links is prob­ably going to be deleted.

I don’t like doing that because if someone’s taken the effort to type some­thing in then that’s kind of them. It’s clear I don’t agree with Scott Monahan. I’ve never known a depart­ment with a ‘depart­mental grant writer’, but maybe they do things dif­fer­ently in America. I accept that there’s always going to be someone who knows where Atlantis is, or who really settled the Americas. If they want to share that enthu­si­asm that’s great, just so long as they don’t think I’m obliged to take them ser­i­ously. Besides the great thing about tak­ing com­ments from people who dis­agree with you is that occa­sion­ally you learn some­thing.

If your com­ment doesn’t appear here, it’s quite pos­sible it’s down to some reason that’s not your fault. If I’ve poin­ted you here that’s all you need to know. This is why, espe­cially if I like your com­ments, I recom­mend set­ting up your own web­log. So why bring this up now? Well I’ve been vis­ited by one of the spe­cial people on the internet.

Sympathy for the Art Collectors

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There’s an odd story on the Independent’s web­site today. It seems University College, London may have been hous­ing hun­dreds of arte­facts illeg­ally expor­ted from Iraq. It’s con­tro­ver­sial not because of UCL’s acquis­i­tion of the pots, but for their reac­tion after it was sug­ges­ted that these may be illi­cit materials.

The arte­facts are devil bowls dat­ing from the 6th to 8th cen­tur­ies AD. The idea is that you put an incant­a­tion on them and then tip them upside down to trap an evil spirit. These were loaned by the Norwegian phil­an­throp­ist Martin Schøyen who bought them in good faith from a Jordanian dealer who swore blind that they’d been in his family’s pos­ses­sion for gen­er­a­tions. However not every­one was con­vinced by the story so UCL set up a com­mit­tee to invest­ig­ate where these bowls came from. Schøyen, for reas­ons which aren’t entirely clear, sued for the return of the bowls. The com­mit­tee, it is said, con­cluded that they were prob­ably looted from Iraq. Until then this had been unknown to UCL and there’s no evid­ence that Martin Schøyen had even the faintest ink­ling that they were looted either.

The Independent story makes it very clear that it was an open and shut case, Schøyen had title to the bowls for seven years, there’s no sug­ges­tion that he looted the bowls nor that he was aware that they were looted. The bowls are his. What is caus­ing the fuss is that the Investigating Committee’s report has been with­held as part of an out of court set­tle­ment. It’s all puzz­ling as it would be help­ful to know how these pots were able to be fenced without arous­ing the sus­pi­cions of an upstand­ing cit­izen. It’s a strong argu­ment for tougher reg­u­la­tion for the antiquit­ies trade as it would be ter­rible if it could be proven again that someone else has taken advant­age of Schøyen’s trust.

If you’re won­der­ing what they look like, a quick search on on ebay reveals that you can buy them for around $600 from the Malter Galleries. You can see pho­tos on their site. Again there’s no evid­ence these are know­ingly looted from Iraq. In fact you can’t be cer­tain where they come from at all apart from the Near East. Is that enough to make them a safe purchase?