© Guardian photo
Charlottetown MP Shawn Murphy reads over the latest comments on The Guardian's website.
A P.E.I. MP is calling for an end to anonymous comments on mainstream media websites.
Charlottetown Liberal MP Shawn Murphy says it’s just a matter of time before both the media outlets and the actual writers of some of these supposedly anonymous comments end up on the wrong side of an expensive and costly defamation suit.
Murphy would like media websites to follow the lead of newspapers which, about two decades ago, put an end to unnamed letters to the editor.
“I found that the comments are getting nastier and nastier,” Murphy said in an interview with The Guardian.
“I believe there is a feeling of anonymity out there when people make the comments but as there have been many court cases in the last year from all across Canada that it is very easy for one to get the ISP numbers of the computer that those comments came from through a court order.”
There have been two high-profile cases in the Maritimes with regard to online comments.
In July, the Moncton Times & Transcript agreed to comply with a court order to reveal the identity of an anonymous commenter after a Moncton firefighter complained their comments were defamatory.
In April, a Nova Scotia court ordered the Halifax weekly The Coast to release all of the information it had to identify commenters. That came after two fire officials there complained an anonymous commenter posted comments alleging racism, cronyism and incompetence at the fire service.
Once the fire officials had the names of the commenters, they launched legal action against them.
Gary MacDougall, managing editor of The Guardian, said he shares the MP’s concerns. He said his newspaper carefully moderates every comment before it is posted to ensure comments are not over the line and he’s not prepared — at least not yet anyway — to require writers to post their real names.
"There are some people out there who seem unaware of libel and the idea of what is a fair comment and what isn’t." Gary MacDougall, Guardian managing editor
“There are some people out there who seem unaware of libel and the idea of what is a fair comment and what isn’t or they choose to disregard any sense of fair play,” said MacDougall.
“The online world is evolving. When a lot of media outlets first started allowing comments on their stories, they were unmoderated. It quickly became apparent to a lot of organizations, certainly ours, that we cannot allow such a practice.”
MacDougall said there is an argument that can be made to maintain anonymous comments.
“Let’s face it, there are some stories, especially in a small jurisdiction like Prince Edward Island,
especially political stories, where it is very difficult for people to use their real names for fear of repercussion.”
But the Charlottetown MP doesn’t buy that argument.
“I think if you’re going to make a comment you have to be prepared to put your name behind it,” he said.
Murphy said he doesn’t have a problem with comments made about him, describing it as a price of admission to public office.
But he said not everybody pays that price of admission, including individuals, groups and organizations that are not in the public domain but can still be targeted by online commenters.
“They are going to become reluctant to give interviews because they are scared of the three pages of hammering that they are going to get in the blogs,” he said.