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Brian Burke and the issue of Internet anonymity and the Phil Mickelson case

I don’t really care much about hockey. I know that makes me un-Canadian, but there I’ve said it. And two of the books I’ve written involve hockey, though I’m not sure what that says about me.

Anyway, I didn’t really care much about the firing of Toronto Maple Leafs’ GM Brian Burke. Seemed timely, I suppose. But it also didn’t take long for the rumours of the reasons for his departure to circulate, though from what my sports sources say none of the conjecture was on point. However, there was one really nasty story that made the rounds. The first time I heard anything about it was on Twitter with someone referring to Burke and a female sportscaster. The suggestion was that Burke had been fired because he’d hooked up with the sportscaster and that the woman was having his baby. I tucked it away as more ridiculous Internet gossip until I saw it turn up on Torontogolfnuts.com, a posting board for those interesting in, well, golf in Toronto. The same story was told by someone using an anonymous handle.

I found the story offensive, though not so much to Burke. I figure that every female sportscaster likely goes through the same BS at some point — especially if they cover male sports, which is the majority of their work. Are you a mildly attractive female sportscaster? Well then you must be a) an airhead b) only looking to hook up with players. It seems ridiculous, but I bet it has happened at one time or other to every female sportscaster.

In this case I took my one year on libel law and pointed out to the anonymous poster that he had libelled Burke and the female sportscaster unless he’d actually seen them in the act and could prove the baby was Burke’s AND that Burke had been fired my Maple Leaf Sports because of it. I was told in no uncertain terms that I was blowing this way out of proportion and with my peace stated, I simply ignored the topic, which I thought was lascivious and obnoxious anyway.

I didn’t really think of it again until I was at the PGA Merchandise show in Orlando and received an email from someone claiming to be Brian Burke’s lawyer. He asked me to contact him. I obviously had a sense of why he wanted to talk to me, but frankly I really didn’t have anything to add. We eventually connected by phone and he explained that Burke was seriously considering a libel suit, and wondered what I knew about Internet anonymity and libel law.

This is part of what he sent me:

We are aware of your posting on the Toronto Golf Nuts’ “The Local Pub” forum thread “HAZEL MAE / Brian Burke WOW”.  We understand and appreciate from your comment (“You folks heard of libel? Even posting anonymously someone could find your IP address if they wanted and follow this up. Most ridiculous thing I’ve heard in some time. I bet every female sportscaster has to face this sort of BS from Internet pigs.”) that you are aware of the legal consequences of the publication and re-publication of the postings upon which you commented.  We also understand that it is possible that the re-publication of the “story” about Hazel Mae and Brian Burke within your comment was not have been within your control.

As a result, we write to see if you can assist us in any way.  Mr. Burke’s position is that the “story” is defamatory of him.  Although he is obviously unhappy with the re-publication of the “story” and would like to stop its spread in so far as possible, he wishes to discover the original author(s).  The “story” appears to have been posted originally by “mbskidmore” (#13 in the thread), although in response to earlier posts by “sliceisnice” and “SLuGo” who apparently had “heard” the same rumour.

I pointed him to the Phil Mickelson suit. Last year Mickelson sought a court order to force Canadian ISP Videotron to turn over the name of the person associated with the IP address. This is the golf connection, at least where this blog is concerned. We had a good conversation about Internet anonymity — I’m not a fan which is why I always post under my own name — and Burke’s decision to take the matter seriously. There’s no question what was said is libel — it is just not as easy moving forward as a typical Old World media case.

By the way, if you want a really good look at how an Internet rumour starts, check out Deadspin’s dissection of the Mickelson story. 

Interestingly I suppose I could have written the story — but I wasn’t looking for additional work as I was slammed at the time. So I gave the tip to a newspaper colleague at one of those great old national newspapers and… nothing. Not sure why they didn’t do anything with it. But nothing came of it for a couple of months.

Then this appeared last week:

A notice of civil claim filed in B.C. Supreme Court alleges the unknown defendants defamed Burke by falsely suggesting he had an extramarital affair with Sportsnet anchor Hazel Mae and that he fathered her child.

It seeks an injunction against the defendants from publishing further “defamatory statements” as well as damages, interest and costs. The claim has not been proven in court and no statement of defence has been filed.

Burke’s move made the rumour far more public than it was before the lawsuit, but allowed him to categorically deny it.

I love the power of the Internet, but I’ll admit that often it disappoints me. I’m all for open discourse, but the anonymity means people often devolve into ad hominem attacks rather than articulating a perspective. It has, unfortunately, happened on this site plenty of times. More often than not I simply delete the comments. I’ve been accused, on more than one occasion, of violating someone’s mythical “free speech” rights, but I always point out that it is my blog and my rules.

Burke may follow through with the lawsuit — and he may not. It is a long road ahead to get the names he seeks and to launch challenges. Interestingly Burke’s lawyer told me he sent several cease-and-desist letters to sites that printed the story, including Torontogolfnuts.com. Most took it down immediately, though one site apparently said it would not only keep it up, but it would up the ante with further tales. That’s arrogance — and I hope the person can prove his story or gets whacked for failing to understand the Internet is a publishing medium and regardless of whether you think you’re anonymous or not, libel is still libel.

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Robert Thompson

A bestselling author and award-winning columnist, Robert Thompson has been writing about business and sports, and particularly golf, for almost two decades. His reporting and commentary on golf has appeared in Golf Magazine, the Globe and Mail, T&L Golf and many other media outlets. Currently Robert is a columnist with Global Golf Post, golf analyst for Global News and Shaw Communications, and Senior Writer to ScoreGolf. The Going for the Green blog was launched in 2004.

1 CommentLeave a comment

  • Unfortunately, these types of rumours are much easier to start than stop and the damage they do if they are inaccurate is impossible to undo. Unlike traditional media which has the lifespan of a fruit fly, online media last forever. This makes it more important than ever before to make sure you have the facts before you start throwing around stories like the one about Burke and Hazel Mae.

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