After more than a year of legal wrangling, the path is finally free for Phantom FM to launch in Dublin.
The legal case saw licence application runner-up Zed FM (backed by Nial Stokes of Hot Press and Bob Geldof among others) claim that the BCI had awarded Phantom FM on the basis of their illegal broadcast history; the High Court ruled against the would-be station and today the Supreme Court upheld that decision. In a statement on the Hot Press website Zed FM accepted the decision and even gave Phantom FM some praise (but didn’t avoid getting a final attempt at a dig in).
Expect to see (hear?) Phantom FM on air again by the end of the summer, if you can’t wait until then you can always subscribe to their weekly podcasts online.
The El Paso Times today stated that the threat of legal action was in fact an April Fools joke, and the Sunday Times had been the fools. Of course, given that El Paso has indeed made extremely serious claims against Cathy Maguire and her family which have the potential to do great damage, it is my opinion that The Sunday Times article on blog defamation may not have been accurate, but it’s probably just premature. The fact that the “April Fool” joke was carried out two days before April Fools Day only makes El Paso look like an immature attention seeker and makes you wonder if they understand the concept of an April Fool prank.
Damien Mulley reckons that the rule of “no publicity is bad publicity” applies in this case. I agree with Damien that blogging will not be damaged by this incident, but it is still the first seriously negative outcome of a growing Irish blogging scene and one that will either be a sign of things to come or a point of education for those writing blogs.
Defamation is a real and present threat in Ireland, be the publication online or otherwise. Bloggers should awaken from any possible pre-conception they may have that blogging, as an amateur hobby does not come under the same rules as the professional media (Back Seat Driver has a good piece on the mirage of anonymity). The one damaging thing that could come from this case is if El Paso is allowed to get away with the defamation it has made. If a blog is allowed to make such accusations and avoid any punishment, opponents of blogging will use it as a stick to beat the rest of us with. On the other side of the coin, as Damien argues, this incident is a chance for bloggers to establish their freedoms and boundaries rather than have them forced upon us by exterior forces.
Irish blogging, like everything else will soon make its heirarchy apparent. By that I mean that the cream will rise to the top, both in terms of quality and integrity. Blogs that are based on childish slagging matches are not likely to endear readers for very long and any publicity El Paso has recieved from its prank will be short-lived. Damien points towards the idea of creating a document to educate those hurt by defamation online; something that would help them get such comments removed or dealt with in some way. I hope that in years to come Irish bloggers will be able to create a system of accountability on a voluntary level, one that would deal with the issue before the courts got involved. At the same time, the threat of libel faces us all, regardless of the comments we make. Like Bernard, many bloggers could not afford to defend themselves in court and in the case of legal threats would be more inclined to comply rather than stand up for their rights and risk much more. Could we see, some time in the future, a body of bloggers willing to donate towards such a cause in the name of freedom of the media? I believe so.
Update: Fergal at Tuppenceworth.ie gives his opinion on the whole debacle, including some comments on my own stance. He raises some good points about the current legal status (the dodgy cease and desist for example, although it’s worth staying sceptical about the wording until an actual copy is put forward) and about the question of who was defamed (the last comments on Mrs. Maguire is arguably libel, however previous comments which are unavailable seem to be the source of contention).
2006 is likely to go down in Irish blogger history as a landmark in the evolution of our blogosphere. The success of the Irish Blog Awards, the superior reportage from Irish bloggers during the Dublin Riots and the growing recognition from mainstream media suggests that the pass-time sport is becoming a serious hobby. Even Planet Journals (formerly Planet of the Blogs) is within spitting distance of aggregating its 1,000th blog. In the first negative development for blogging in Ireland, news is coming out that the El Paso Times is facing legal action for unsavory comments aimed at singer Cathy Maguire and her family.
Regardless of the outcome, if this incident does come to court it is likely to act as a wake-up call to Irish bloggers. Just like most online inventions, blogging offers the potential of anonymity, those who chose to can remain hidden behind a pseudonym or stage name for their entire blogging “career”. Of course, as is becoming increasingly apparent, this veil is only useful as long as you do not force others to peak behind it, once you attract the attention of the law your identity will become a well known fact quicker than you might like. The fact is that information published in Ireland should adhere to Irish law; getting that theory into practice may not be so easy, however.
Simon wonders if this development will effect the upcoming Defamation Bill; unlikely in my opinion although there is every chance that Irish law will be redefined in the context of online publishing, that’s assuming that this potential case does not set a legal precident before then.