Legal Cheek founder Alex Aldridge didn't appreciate the influence he wields. He does now. It took a law suit and requests to his Internet Service Provider to close him down, before he realised how much notice people were taking of his maverick legal news site.
"These days anyone can be a journalist. There's a whole variety of blogging sites enabling anyone to create their own content. But until Twitter, which has enabled everyone to push out that content to mass audiences in a way previously they could only dream of, people could blog away about their own personal view of the world to their hearts content, without really affecting anything; audiences were so small, any harm done would be limited. But all that has changed." Over lunch in Covent Garden I talk to Alex about whether the principles of ethics and standards that all good journalists subscribe to - accuracy, truthfulness, impartiality, objectivity, etc - have any special role to play as the authorities and users of social media alike try to get their heads around how we are going to control rights and responsibilities in this new social media age.
I asked him if he thinks there's any difference between bloggers playing at being journalists, and journalists who blog. "I think the essential difference is about accountability. And it wasn't until that law suit that I really understood this in all its aspects." "That" law suit centred on a story that was accurate, but which was accompanied by a photo of someone entirely unrelated to the affair. He wasn't the only journalist to use the photo erroneously - a leading daily paper had used the same image. But the mistake cost him dearly. "Legal Cheek started in the wild west days of legal blogging - a new frontier. With just me working on stories, for a then unknown blog, I had to be nimble and quick to get the stories first. No-one was going to deliver stories to my door." Now that he has recognised the influence his blog has, and the responsibility this carries, he takes a different approach. "I have to" he says. "There's an expectation that as a seasoned legal journalist, my stories can be relied upon and I'm accountable for that."
"It's interesting to see how Lord McAlpine's lawyers are calculating the damage to his reputation after the Newsnight/Phillip Schofield gaffe. They're basing it on the number of followers the tweeters who named him have. They are arguing that those who have 56,000 followers, say, have a greater responsibility that those who have only two for example. And our Director of Public Prosecutions Keir Starmer is taking a similar approach. He has promised Guidelines later this year on how damage is to be calculated, after a series of cases involving social media abuse have resulted in wildly varying approaches to quantum. This is interesting: it's telling us not only about where the boundaries are in this wild west landscape, but also how responsibility and accountability are intrinsically linked to the strength of your following."
I also took the opportunity to ask Alex about a novel method of reporting we'd noticed recently on Legal Cheek. You may have seen that his coverage of the Annual Bar Conference earlier this month took the form of a report of the most interesting tweets: "The Bar Conference In Tweets: Most Retweeted, Most Eye-Catching, Most Amusing". For readers, this provided a fresh, novel way to learn what was being talked about, compared to the traditional journalist event write-up. "It only worked by selecting the best from the #barconf2012 timeline. Twitter timelines can in fact be very hard to read - it's not always obvious which tweet is replying to which, and how the thread of conversation is actually running. So a bit of deciphering was important to enable Legal Cheek visitors to understand what was going on. It's an interesting addition to the journalist skill-set. It's almost like "curating" - certainly it's more than just "aggregating". It's an interesting role to have."
Well it's certainly interesting watching you develop Legal Cheek, Alex. I wonder where you'll take us next...
News of another favourite legal blogger, in the dock this week for a highly entertaining distraction at London Twegals most recent tweet-up. The great and the good of the legal blogo- and Twitter-sphere gathered at The Lamb Tavern in Leadenhall Market to witness the Trial of Charon QC - entertainingly staged by This Is Your Laugh (this company should go right into your address book right away!) famous for putting on "individually-tailored comedy experiences" using Comedy Store and TV regulars: Norman Lovett the face of The Red Dwarf computer Holly, played Judge; and Bob Slayer, architect behind the Alternative Fringe at Edinburgh played defence.
What a fun way to do a corporate (well almost) event!
Did we learn anything new about the legal profession's favourite blogger?
- That there was a time when he was "never knowingly under-refreshed"? That was public knowledge (Rioja anyone?) and the man is now famously tee-total.
- That his alter ego Mike Semple Piggott is the man who launched BPP Law School? We all knew that too.
- That he has, in the words of his Lordship, "as many pseudonyms as any self-respecting rapper". But we know them all - Charon QC, Lord Shagger, Dr Erasmus Strangelove and various other partners in Muttley Dastardly LLP, etc. And, as he was keen to point out, he has never hidden his true identity.
It was the witness statements that were the revelation of the evening: a rather stressed @PME2013 tricked into donning a moustache and leading the crowd singing Queen's We Will Rock You (some in the room should be hanging their heads in shame); and @Jezhop managing to squeeze more key messages about his firm Riverview Law into his testimony than I have ever witnessed in legal circles :)
Great fun night. If you missed it, watch out on Twitter for the next announcement about a Twegals Tweetup.
I'm confident the Stained Glass Ceiling, as this issue has become known, will eventually be removed. it's just a matter of time. Cast your minds forward: hope I live to see the day when the Church of England is arguing instead about the possibility of mandatory quotas for female bishops. Now there's a thought...