Monday, 14 May 2012

Hype And Hyperbole: Heating Up The Headlines

When Pirate Party founder Rick Falkvinge posted a ferocious attack on Dutch judge Chris Hansen, he set off a chain of events that manifestly didn't lead to the judge's downfall and probably won't. However, his assertion that the German Pirate Party will get twenty seats in the North Rhine-Westphalia parliament was right on the mark: exit polls reported by the Wall Street Journal give them 8% of the vote and CNBC says it's 7.8%. Is heating up the headlines with hyperbole a good way to get attention or can it backfire and lose you credibility?

Courting controversy

Having a name like "The Pirate Party" is rather provocative and brings to mind all sorts of images from Jack Sparrow from Pirates of the Caribbean to the marauding Somalis who board freighters and liners and hold the passengers and crew to ransom. Most recently, it's been associated with the Pirate Bay, whose sympathisers did indeed set up the party.

Its rise to power in Europe has been reported with some trepidation in the press as upsetting the old order. Not widely recognised in the UK and not making much of an impact in the US, they've won many seats in parliaments across Europe. Now that they're beginning to make their mark, the others are starting to sit up and take notice.

The hype

Since digital freedom, IPR law reform, and the decriminalisation of filesharing are the party's main platform, you'd expect them to be a bit biased when reporting on legal matters, particularly when you're reporting on having been banned from linking to copyright material or websites that host infringing material. But in a recent blog post Rick Falkvinge may have jumped the shark. He called out Dutch judge Chris Hensen and accused him of corruption because of his involvement in running copyright courses and his history as an IPR (intellectual property rights) maximalist. This is clearly a conflict of interest since he's guaranteed to be biased in favour of the plaintiffs — as all of his decisions have been.

The backlash

However, on Reddit, where it's been getting a lot of attention, there has been no internet mob storming the Bastille or anything like it. Indeed, while Techdirt and TorrentFreak have picked up the story and run with it, there seems to be no move to oust the judge, and although Hensen sat on the Eyeworks v Dutch Usenet community FTD lawsuit, they don’t intend to follow up the bias claims when they appeal the verdict.

In the verdict, Judge Chris Hensen ruled that by allowing users to talk about a movie’s location on Usenet, FTD was effectively publishing the movie as if they had actually hosted it on their own servers. - TorrentFreak

They hadn't even linked to it; just told people where to find it.

Meanwhile, one Redditor picked up on Falkvinge's rather defensive footnote:

That's a lie. There's no such thing as a "licensed journalist" in Sweden. The Swedish government doesn't issue "journalist licenses" of any sort. What is the case is that a publication (such as a blog) can officially register as a publication (utgivningstillstånd) with a certain publisher, and that gives them certain legal protections.

It doesn't make Falkvinge a journalist, or mean his blog is unbiased or credible in any way. Falkvinge's got no journalistic education, nor has he ever worked as a paid journalist. - Platypuskeeper, a commenter on Reddit

The top comment is by Melnorme:

He was not found to be corrupt.

Being "found" to be something implies that there was an official proceeding at which evidence was presented, and an authoritative body rendered an official opinion.

What we have here is merely an allegation.

Words have meaning, OP. Use them correctly.

If Falkvinge was trying to make friends on a website notorious for digging up dirt and gleefully flinging it about online, he's failed. Call me biased but I can't blame him for calling out the judge for an apparent bias and conflict of interest but if FTD's defense team aren't going to run with it it's better to either let it drop or make a formal complaint.

The future

We all make mistakes and controversies can be useful for getting attention. The Pirate Party has been doing well enough in Europe and clearly hasn't been hurt by this. It's not just a flash in the pan, though. Falkvinge's demagoguery is a noted trait and I can't point at him without having to admit that I do it too. The difference is, I'm not the founder of a rising political movement so I can get away with it. Can he?

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