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Friday, 20 May 2011

The future of legal blogging

Published on Halsbury's Law Exchange here.

Last night 1 Crown Office Row hosted an event at the Law Society on the future of legal blogging. I must at the outset thank the organisers both for the high standard of speakers and for the hospitality, although the excellence of the latter may, I fear, have adversely affected my memory of the former.

Blogging is an activity which could be tailor-made for lawyers, who almost by definition are people who enjoy both the English language and the activity of getting on soapboxes.. In fact, the only real surprise about legal blogging is that there isn’t more of it, but then I suppose lawyers also enjoy making money, and blogs tend not to do that.

One of the first questions put to the panel was whether legal blogging is an example of the old philosophical conundrum of a tree falling in the forest where there is no-one to hear it: is it making any sound, or merely a vibration?

To my mind, the answer is that while there are no doubt many individual blogs with no readership beyond the individual author, legal blogging as a whole is indeed making some tangible noise. An example was given last night of the Simon Singh libel case. Dr Singh had close support from some bloggers, and the case as a whole received some attendant publicity. I would observe that the blogs would have had no effect on the actual outcome of the litigation, although attention drawn to the preposterous nature of the claimant’s action – which constituted a blight on free speech, a blow to consumer information and a retardant to scientific advancement – has to be a good thing.

The more general point made was that blogs provide legal information and dissemination in a format that is free, easily found and, in the case of the better-written, more understandable than traditional sources of legal information. They also serve as a forum for public debate.

One intriguing aspect of the blogosphere is that it is something close to a perfect free market in ideas – there are few barriers to entry for suppliers, almost no cost to consumers and, whilst there is some regulation of UK-based bloggers, the nature of the internet is such that almost any regulation might be rendered ineffective, as I wrote about in the context of superinjunctions.

The last of those points poses some serious issues for bloggers. No doubt there was a certain amount of schadenfreude when Fred Goodwin’s injunction was effectively defeated by a combination of the very old in the form of the protection of free speech in Parliament guaranteed by Art 9 of the 1689 Bill of Rights, and the very new in the form of the effective invulnerability of overseas bloggers (some of whom likened Goodwin’s attempts to preserve his public image to Mr Guggenheim putting on his dinner jacket to go down with the ship, though with the opposite of Guggenheim’s gentlemanly and heroic connotations). Yet readers will need no reminding of the severe injustice that scurrilous information might cause – mistrials in serious criminal cases, or career-ending defamation, for a start – which even the most ardent free speech advocates would regret. It is fair to say, therefore, that the future of injunctions contempt of court, open justice and confidential information in the Twitter age has yet to be decided (see here for Lord Neuberger’s report on super-injunctions, published this morning).

An interesting discussion also took place on what will happen to traditional journalism in the face of legions of blogs. It was pointed out that online journalists enjoy freedom from the rigid word counts and publishing delays which print publications necessarily involve. They also have the ability to correct errors in the original copy and can insert necessary links (links being stressed last night as an essential tool for substantiating arguments and providing further reading – clear benefits over print journalism).

The consensus seemed to be that, whilst the benefits of near-instantaneous tweets of news and comment are undoubted, there will always be a place for more considered analysis by professional journalists and commentators a few days after the event. Inevitably, however, the presence of high quality free comment on legal affairs on the blogosphere will affect the value of legal journalism in monetary terms.

The hope was expressed that a meritocratic system would separate blogging wheat from chaff. Inevitably the most popular bloggers – as in most walks of life – will not necessarily be the best in terms of quality; but I would imagine that good blogs would become known within short order.

I would agree that the marketplace of ideas will be an effective regulator of legal blogs. Existing professional duties will be an effective restraint on blogs written by practising lawyers. For most of the mainstream media, the Press Complaints Commission jurisdiction now extends to blogs. Perhaps other bloggers will in time form voluntary codes of conduct of a similar nature, as a way of adding some authority or otherwise assuring readers.

Legal blogging, whatever its flaws, ensures more debate about the rules that govern us, and keeps better scrutiny on those who make and enforce them. Having more of those benefits seems a pretty good thing for the future.

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