Sunday 5 December 2010

David Allen Green at Winchester Skeptics in the Pub

David Allen Green, also known as legal blogger Jack of Kent, was the latest speaker at Winchester Skeptics in the Pub on 24th November at the Roebuck Inn. Fresh from the #TwitterJokeTrial appeal dismissal David gave us his account of proceedings in an engaging talk without notes or PowerPoint. The issues raised by the Paul Chambers Twitter affair and others have implications beyond the internet social media within which they would initially appear to be confined. Issues of privacy, publication, and the status of conversations conducted online via Twitter or Facebook, or any online forum where the distinction between public and private conversation space becomes blurred, are all considerations that can lead to unexpected (and undesirable) consequences.

One of the problems is that the phenomenon of online social media is still relatively new, and people will inevitably be testing its limits, whether intentionally or unintentionally. And because it's new, the resolution of such tests seems often to be the job of the courts. For the hapless participants this is likely to be unnerving, extremely expensive and potentially life-changing.

David Allen Green, aka Jack of Kent, has made a name for himself as the foremost explicator of these matters. He's a media lawyer with a reputation for clear legal analysis set out in a way understandable to non-lawyers (that is, the rest of us). I met him briefly at the Penderel's Oak in Holborn, the evening before TAM London 2009, and one thing I particularly remember from our brief conversation was his statement that as a lawyer he was in a position to say things about current legal cases that non-lawyers could not, because he knew precisely how far he could go while staying within the law. He confirmed in his SitP talk that his writing is deliberately "legal-proof".

He explained how he got into blogging and how he became a Skeptic (with a K), saying that his skepticism was founded on no more than an insistence that there should be a critical or evidence-based approach to issues when appropriate. He stressed that skepticism shouldn't be used as a means to specific ends.

He has given talks on witchcraft trials from a strictly legal standpoint, maintaining that the existence or not of witchcraft — in the sense of supernatural powers — was never an issue. He detailed his involvement with the Simon Singh libel case, and the importance of libel reform. He also touched on a couple of other cases he's been involved with, Dave Osler and Sally Bercow, but went into more detail about Paul Chambers, whose case is ongoing, though looking pretty grim at present.

In addition to his Jack of Kent blog — so significant in letting the world know the salient details of Simon Singh's battle with the British Chiropractic Association — David Allen Green has also been blogging regularly at New Statesman. They must be pleased with his efforts, as he is now the New Statesman legal correspondent. He also writes the Bad Law? column at The Lawyer.

The Q&A was understandably centred around the Paul Chambers #TwitterJokeTrial case, and its implications for establishing a dividing line between public and private conversation space. In response to a question David gave the example of a Daily Mail article that appeared to intentionally humiliate a civil servant making extensive use of Twitter. The question is, was it reasonable for Sarah Baskerville to treat Twitter as a private medium for off-the-cuff comments about her work and colleagues? Personally I think one has to be mindful of the reach of internet social media, but given Twitter's informality this is easy to forget.

This was an excellent talk about serious issues, delivered by an insider with a gift for explication of complex matters.

I had a couple of questions for David, which I would have asked if I hadn't felt that they'd likely derail the Q&A conversation, centred as it was on the public/private demarcation issue. The first is about the Simon Singh libel case: at a point fairly late in proceedings it appeared that the BCA themselves had posted a libellous statement on their website, to the effect that Simon Singh had been malicious in his article. On his Jack of Kent blog David wrote that if Simon decided to countersue, the case would be over. The BCA amended their website, but the offending statement was still accessible if one knew the correct URL. At the time I thought this was a sign that the BCA knew they were going to lose, and that this hastily amended (but not immediately deleted) libel was a ploy to end the case without losing face over their original suit. I'm curious as to whether this incident had any eventual bearing on the case.

My second question is: whatever happened to Jack's Climate Quest?