Stepneygate, sensationalism and censorship

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An interesting post went up on ITV-F1’s forum on Monday. Reading between the lines, the gist of it was, “speculating what Nigel Stepney and Mike Coughlan might have done is not allowed on this board”:

As you will appreciate, for legal reasons, we cannot allow user’s posts to include any speculation, potentially libelous or defamatory comments regarding F1 investigations.

If users continue to submit inappropriate posts on these issues they risk having a post/thread removed and a possible suspension of forum rights.

ITV are well within their rights to run their forum as they see fit. They’re doing it because they’re afraid of becoming the next Mumsnet.

Mumsnet was taken to court earlier this year by Gina Ford, a parenting expert who was unhappy with the stinging denunciations written by Mumsnet forum posters of her controversial approaches to child rearing.

ITV may be trying to limit discussion of ‘Stepneygate’ on their pages because they don’t want to get sued. But others like Pitpass editor Chris Balfe think speculation about the affair has gotten entirely out of hand. In an editorial today beneath a large photograph of a (mercifully clean) toilet bowl he wrote:

The ongoing espionage/sabotage saga has allowed some ‘journalists’ and ‘web publishers’ the run amok, to trample on the basic rules of journalism, and as a result we are all the losers.

I am absolutely appalled to read headlines such as: “Race fans believe McLaren guilty” and “Did McLaren pay Stepney?” Talk about trial by media.

(You’ll find what I believe may be the stories he’s talking about here and here.)

As Balfe correctly points out, the scandal is a serious matter. And at present the outside world knows very little about what has actually happened.

Because of this it’s inevitable that there will be speculation both in the established media and on forums. I expect the quality media to give me informed insight and I expect the forums to be hotbeds of gossip.

And I think suing a forum host because of idle gossip is pathetic, and trying to censor it in the first place is hardly any better.

Anyway, long story short, I couldn’t do a sensationalist poll about who you think is guilty because my poll facility thing is broken.

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Tags: f1 / formula one / formula 1 / grand prix / motor sport

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Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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6 comments on “Stepneygate, sensationalism and censorship”

  1. How internationally known is magicians Penn & Teller’s cable television show called “********”? (I apologize to those offended by the title, its purpose will be explained momentarily.)

    The purpose of the show is to debunk an assortment of shady dealings; the snake oil salesmen of our time. The first episode was about spirit mediums, people that pretend they can speak with your dead loved ones.

    Getting to the point, however, is that the reason they must title their show with a cuss word and use similarly foul language to describe the people they debunk, is because according to the law, if they call someone a liar or a fraud on television, they can be sued, but simply calling someone a jerk or an asshole holds no such weight in court. Because of this, they choose the latter route.

    Speculation is a dangerous thing if we can be held libelous for statements we make in what are not professional, but are arguably journalistic forums. It partly bothers me that a website can be sued in the Mumsnet way, but that also validates this medium. It is worth noting that I turn to before I turn to the F1 website, because the information here is more thorough and better organized. Think about that a moment.

  2. Speculation in the normal course of events is a fine thing, and not something that should be censored. That said, it is necessary for law courts to preserve their ability to judge cases fairly, and this is the situation we face. For all that any potential jury or judge is told not to look at outside opinions of the case during court sessions, the system only works if their views are relatively uncontaminated in the first place.

    It was easy to do this when only professional journalists did widespread coverage of stories like this. Now, though, lots of people comment, and people are prepared to look at a lot of different sources. Could you imagine chunther’s comment about an amateur web site being regarded as better than the professional equivalent ten, or even five years ago?

    The catch is that amateurs tend to be less careful about libel. This is why the ITV censorship has kicked in. It’s not to stop responsible people from talking about the case, it’s to make sure legal process has half a chance of reaching a just decision. Normally I hate censorship, but this time I understand.

  3. To rather crudely sum-up – it is late in the UK – I have been careful with what I have written about this saga. Not because what I have written is read by many people, holds any authority, or even should be well-written. It was carefully written because I chose it to be. Full stop. No other reason.

    For sure, there will be the ‘tabloid blogs’, there are also the ‘tabloid media’. And then there are the intelligent few who generate thoughtful articles on something that is potentially huge in their chosen field of interest.

    With regards to the ITV Forums, honestly, why would anyone participate in ITVs forums? What do you honestly expect? They’re an international company with a reputation to uphold/improve (I would lean towards ‘improve’). Of course they’re gonna moderate and protect. Some people need to learn that the internet is a big, crude and ugly beast. Of course, it can be also be a resource of wonderfully written information. Suing over the difference is immature,

  4. when talking about Pitpass – in one article they condemn speculation, but then, 6 articles later, they run a piece with a sensational title naming Whitmarsh …

  5. Speculation is a natural human reaction – but not something we should be particularly proud of, and hopefully something we will evolve out of soon!

    I’ve never been on ITV’s forums, I’d rather search out a more informed view on sites like this and BlogF1.

  6. Ah, Milos, but Pitpass are merely reporting speculation in the Whitmarsh article. The original speculation (as does all the “revelations” regarding Coughlan’s affidavit) originates in a certain Italian newspaper. Seems to me that there is a difference between reporting what someone else says and making up news yourself.

    I have written quite a lot about the whole affair but have always pointed at the sources for any alleged facts I mention. In a way, speculation is my business – I digest the news and then give my opinion on it, sometimes indicating where it seems to make no sense. Logical deduction from the assertions of others, you could call it (not that I necessarily get it right – I am working with sometimes suspect facts, after all).

    Balfe is really overstating his case. The headline “Race Fans Believe McLaren Guilty” was only slightly misleading in that it was reporting the results of a survey of fans in Germany, whereas it sounds as though all fans subscribe to the idea. A quick scan of the article reveals this. But the point is that, certainly in the online media, most articles have reported facts as they emerge without commenting upon them. It is a fact, for instance, that the survey mentioned produced that result.

    And that is the job of journalism – to report the facts. Almost all of the so-called facts regarding Coughlan’s affidavit originate in the Italian media and all the articles I have seen report this without saying whether it is credible or not. It is in the forums that sides are taken and dubious assertions taken as facts.

    But that is the nature of forums; they are private discussions in a public place. And the fact that they are public is what has made ITV decide to limit them – by allowing their forums to be open they could be said to be publishing them.

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