One very irate reader - probably ex-reader - emailed me with a bitter complaint about the Mercury's 'decision to deny freedom of speech' to our readers.
She wrote: 'I am of course referring to your apparent decision to omit an 'add comment' facility for the most recent story about the McCanns ... the British media's generally misplaced sympathy for the McCanns and lack of ability to acknowledge that the parents deserve to be criticised (and convicted) for their negligence makes me suspicious that this a deliberate move by the Mercury to gag their readers. We should be proud of our right of free speech in this country and if you have made the decision to exercise selective censorship you should be thoroughly ashamed of yourselves. Yours disgustedly etc'
I'm not convinced the name or email address supplied were genuine, but she was clearly very angry. It is a very difficult area for us - we give our readers the ability to comment on articles on our website without requiring them to register and without us putting in any form of pre-moderation (ie we moderate posts after they show up on the website, removing those which we think create a legal issue or which are in some other way offensive).
We certainly allow things on to the website which we would not allow into the paper - I guess we think it is clear that it is the opinion of the reader and not something that we would necessarily agree with. But we do have to draw the line somewhere. The problem with legal issues is that we are legally responsible for our website and we are more likely to be sued than the comment writer - I don't think it is clear cut, but the risk is there for us. I don't think too many people would expect us to accept clearly libellous posts.
But there are those comments which we remove for other less easily defined reasons and this is the area where we run into trouble with disgruntled posters. There are things that no right-minded person is going to object to us removing: racism and homophobia, for example. Personal insults would not generally be accepted, but we have let some pretty nasty comments about Keith Vaz and Alan Duncan go over the past week or so. The fact that they put themselves into the public eye probably means that we allow our posters more freedom than we might if the subject was simply Joe Public.
So what about the McCanns? It is true that we don't allow comments on any stories about Maddy or her parents. Why is that? We used to allow posts, but there is a small group of people out there who are convinced that they know what happened to Maddy - they have no evidence, but they are happy to make their allegations publicly and forcefully. Every time we have allowed comments on our stories about this family, the articles have become swamped with baseless accusations.
Of course, our decision to close down the comments has meant that we are preventing reasonable people from using our website to have perfectly reasonable discussions about the case - in fact, the complainant I quote above, accuses the McCanns of negligence, presumably because the children were left alone at night. You may or may not agree with this opinion, but it an opinion that a reasonable person might hold. To that extent, our complainant is right, we are suppressing free speech.
However, the right to free speech comes with a responsibility and the bile that is poured out by a minority on this issue, leaves us with little choice. I don't like the decision, but I don't see what else we can do without using resources we don't have to moderate more quickly. I am considering changing our comment system to allow only those who have registered to comment. This, I think, would give our readers more commitment to the site and it would be much easier to build a system of trust that meant we didn't need to moderate at all or where the readers themselves could moderate.
But that's for the future. For now, I'm sticking with the ban even though it cost us a reader.