Headlines and defamation suits
This is a week where headlines themselves become the subject of headlines.
In this latest article in a series with Yahoo!, Law Minister Shanmugam clarified on what the government will or will not sue on. I don’t remember anyone from the PAP being so up front about this, so it was quite refreshing to read what he has to say about it.
Most reassuring of all, he confirmed that it’s perfectly fine to called the PAP a bunch of incompetent, anti-Singaporeans idiots, because that’s just an opinion. Yes, go ahead and knock yourselves out. It’s not okay, on the other hand, to say that they lied or acted dishonestly.
If you’re still unsure, try this rule of thumb: unsubstantiated accusations of specific acts will get you into trouble; general behavioural observations (insults) are acceptable. But don’t blame me if this rule of thumb doesn’t work out for you when you hear from their lawyers.
Right on cue, it was revealed today that The Real Singapore (TRS) website has been asked to apologise for a defamatory post on Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen. Apparently, it was only the headline the minister has an issue with, because TR Emeritus carried the same article sans that headline and they didn’t get into any trouble for that. For my own financial preservation, I will not reveal the headline here, but it appears to be congruent with what Shanmugam said in terms of the type of offending content.
More worthy of note, this incident also highlighted the risk that news and blog aggregators put themselves into. The aggregator Singapore Surf got into similar trouble when all it did, I assume, was to present an excerpt of the article from TRS on its own website. Seeing that the offending statement is the headline itself, it calls into question the practice of auto-linking blog posts and even the auto-tweeting of articles that some websites practise. It really shouldn’t be the case that you be held responsible for something someone else wrote, but do be careful.
It is clear that unsubstantiated accusations are risky, but how about rhetorical questions? Perhaps if we add an ellipsis and a question mark, it becomes acceptable? After all, we learned this week from a Yale political scientist* that that’s supposed to be “ironic, laced with wan humour”. And, apparently, if you use this neat little trick in a headline, the body of your article does not have to be relevant to it at all. So, for example, you can use a title such as “Jim Sleeper is a … bigoted idiot?” and go on to talk about something entirely unrelated like, say, the pornographic industry. Your audience, or at least the American free-spirited liberals, will get the joke and laugh along at your incredible wit.
So is it okay if we write “So and so … cheated Singaporeans of their CPF?”? Will that breach the invisible OB Markers for online critics of the PAP? Bear in mind that it is not just our government but supposedly also Singaporeans, as “products of authoritarian intellect strait-jackets” according to this crazy political scientist, who can be a tad over-sensitive?
I leave it to another blogger or website to test that out.
* not going to link him here