COLUMN: The politics of name-calling

Online commenting can be dangerous for public figures.

The perils of online commenting by politicians may end up costing a former White Rock councillor some money.

Cliff Annable, a well-known South Surrey resident, is the defendant in a lawsuit being launched by his former council rival Margaret Woods. The suit is based on Annable’s admission last fall that he posted comments online on peacearchnews.com, making negative references to Woods. At the time, he was preparing another run at a White Rock council seat.

Annable and Woods are best-known for their clash in 2003 when, in the midst of a heated council debate, Woods poked him with a pen. That incident drew an enormous amount of attention, and has served to symbolize a history of dysfunction on White Rock council.

Annable’s admission about the online comment came in a story on White Rock politicians using online aliases to make comments about local politics and, in some cases, themselves. It was yet another reason why Black Press, the parent company of Peace Arch News and the Surrey-North Delta Leader, dispensed with the anonymous commenting on Dec. 1. Black Press newspapers now use Facebook for comments, and all commenters are to identify themselves.

As one who has dealt with comments under both systems in my capacity as editor of Langley Times, I believe the Facebook-based comments are an immense improvement, for many reasons. Politicians are welcome to make comments on content on our websites – they just need to use their real names. Of course, they can also line up supporters to praise them and condemn opponents, as politicians have done for generations.

In the age where social media are so prominent, comments on websites are an essential tool for feedback. They offer a chance to take part in something which is developing, and many of them offer welcome additions and insights on a particular topic.

However, anonymous comments do not help much. Those who use them tend to do so extensively. They hide behind anonymity and spew venomous and  inaccurate information, feeling secure that no one will find out who they are. They prevent legitimate commenters from taking part in a discussion, and add nothing of substance to an understanding of issues.

While some media websites continue to allow anonymous comments, they aren’t likely to last all that long. They add nothing to a website and will eventually cost some people, and some media companies, money in lawsuits. It will be interesting to see just how far Woods’ suit goes. She says she had asked Annable for an apology and retraction, but he refused. Thus the suit. Annable, for his part, says he is preparing a statement of defence.

As an observer and occasional party to past libel suits (as a result of my job), I would advise that the two try to make peace quickly. These suits go on for a long time, and as long as there are lawyers involved, the meter keeps ticking. A libel suit that ends up as subject of a full-fledged trial could easily cost each participant hundreds of thousands of dollars.

As well, the judgments rendered at the end of a trial can be far different than participants expect. Many years ago, a Surrey councillor sued another councillor for a statement he made after a council meeting, stating that the first councillor was a “sick son of a b—-.”

The case went to trial, and the judge found that there was indeed a libel. But the libel was not in the phrase “son of a b—-,” as many might have expected. Rather, the judge ruled it was in the use of the adjective “sick” in front of the term.

The cash settlement ordered by the judge was small and the plaintiff donated it to charity. But as with all such suits, it was costly to all involved.

The lessons from that case could be applied in this latest dispute between two longtime rivals, should they choose to consider them. If not, there will likely be a fascinating libel case three or four years from now, in which online commenting will get a thorough airing in court.

Who says local politics is dull?

Frank Bucholtz writes Thursdays for the Peace Arch News. He is the editor of the Langley Times.