A blogger has agreed a €100,000 settlement after libelling Niall Ó Donnchú, a senior civil servant, and his girlfriend Laura Barnes. It is the first time in Ireland that defamatory material on a blog has resulted in a pay-out.The Independent has more on the case from 2007 when proceedings were issued, and Sean Murphy has also produced a summary of the issues involved.
Barnes, an American book dealer, made a profit of up to €800,000 in 2005 from selling a cache of James Joyce papers to the state. One year later she began a relationship with Ó Donnchú, an assistant secretary in the Department of Arts, Sports and Tourism.
In December 1, 2006, a blogger who styles himself as Ardmayle posted a comment about the couple and the sale of the Joycean manuscripts under the headline “Barnes and Noble”. Following a legal complaint, he took down the blog and in February 2007 he posted an apology which had been supplied by Ó Donnchú’s and Barnes’ lawyer, Ivor Fitzpatrick solicitors.
“I subsequently discovered that these remarks were inaccurate,” Ardmayle said. “I unreservedly apologise to both Laura Barnes and Niall Ó Donnchú in respect of this post.”
However, the pair subsequently issued separate proceedings. It is understood that the €100,000 settlement was agreed shortly before the case was due before the High Court. A full defamation trial before a jury can cost €700,000-€800,000 in legal costs for both parties.
The blog, still active at http://ardmayle.blogspot.com/, is in the form of a personal diary with observations on the arts, literature and sport. The author is not identified, and the litigants may have got his details through his internet server provider (ISP).
The settlement was subject to a confidentiality agreement, which forbids the blogger from speaking about it publicly. Neither Ó Donnchú nor Barnes responded to invitations to comment.
One interesting aspect of this case, as Mark points out, is the fact that the damages appeared to be quite high given that the blog in question was very low profile:
John Burns’s piece in today’s Sunday Times on the blogger who paid out €100,000 for libeling someone is interesting, and not just for bloggers. The blog which is the subject of the story is so obscure that Google finds zero – repeat zero – inward links. This is despite it having been operational since May 2005 (contrast that with TheStory; we’ve only been going since October or so, yet there are over 800 inward link results to the front-page alone). Additionally, the writer’s profile has only been viewed 3,000 times since the blog opened – or less than once per day.Leaving aside the specifics of the case, perhaps this illustrates a more general point highlighting the importance of keeping good server logs.
So it’s a little-known, to say the least, blog.
The level of damages in defamation reflects the extent of publication – i.e. the extent to which the defamatory material was actually read. This is not (despite the best efforts of plaintiffs’ lawyers) the same as the extent to which it might have been read. Consequently (leaving aside other factors such as the gravity of the allegations) damages should be greatly reduced where the audience can be shown to be negligible. Potential readability worldwide notwithstanding.
Unfortunately, in the absence of server logs, it is going to be very difficult to rebut a plaintiff who claims that the material appeared quite high in search engine rankings, may have been read worldwide, etc. Consequently a defendant in that position is likely to be on the back foot, especially where a judge assumes that availability online automatically equals a mass audience.