Lauren Wainwright

What Lauren Wainwright’s reported legal threats against Eurogamer show about the gaming press

What Lauren Wainwright’s reported legal threats against Eurogamer show about the gaming press

The sad tale of the edited Eurogamer article has become a lightning rod for conversation and debate about the ethics and practices of game journalism, and we ran down the whole sorry mess in a prior story if you need to catch up.

Since the publication of the first story, a few things have happened, and it’s more important than ever to discuss them. According to the Operations Director of the Eurogamer Network, Tom Bramwell, there were legal threats from Wainwright, and British laws make those very hard to ignore. This is a story that’s worth more discussion.

Eurogamer’s Tom Bramwell describes the threats

“Lauren told us that she intended to pursue the matter with her lawyers and made it clear she would not drop it until it was resolved to her satisfaction,” Bramwell told the Penny Arcade Report.

“After taking legal advice we decided to remove the paragraphs and apologize to Lauren. We consulted Rab beforehand and, while it is always regrettable to have to edit a published piece, it was what we had to do and he understood. Furthermore, I’ve seen a few people suggest the removal of the paragraphs ‘gutted’ the article, which I do not agree with - I believe that Rab’s point is still clear.”

It’s hard for American audiences to understand the power of a libel accusation to British press: the United States enjoys a free press and laws that make libel suits a non-trivial affair. By adhering to simple standards and ethics, the American press can easily protect themselves against libel suits. The English press has no such protections.

“The key to the power of libel suits is the huge cost involved: the losing party has to pay the court costs. This can be crippling, amounting to 10 times any damages that are awarded. The cost of libel actions in England and Wales is 140 times higher than the European average,” The Bureau of Investigative Journalism reported.  “This… has led to a system where the merest whiff of libel is enough to have editors hastily spiking articles, settling out of court or withdrawing offending material rather than be financially crippled in the fight to publish.”

You can also sue individual reporters for libel in England, as well as their outlets. It doesn’t matter that Lauren Wainwright worked a freelance job for Square Enix and was later criticized for promoting Tomb Raider on her Twitter feed, or that she allegedly lied about never reviewing the company’s games while removing references to her work from the company. It’s hard to verify the accuracy of that tweet, due to Wainwright setting her Twitter settings to private. Now no one can see her current or previous tweets without her permission. Her Journalisted account doesn’t show Square Enix as a previous employer, all mentions of her work with the company have simply been removed after this story broke.

In English courts the presumption is that the defendant carries the burden of proof, meaning that the assumption is that the statements described as libelous are assumed to be incorrect. In 2010 the Speech Act was passed to protect the American press against threats of libel in England. Before that year, Wainwright could have threatened to sue Penny Arcade, due to the fact the website can be read in countries with problematic laws against libel.

It’s been claimed that these are the actions of a naive, young reporter, but she tweeted that her knowledge and studies of media law are finally coming in handy. She knew exactly how to shut the story down. While most reporters find these libel laws to be indefensible to anyone who supports a free press, Wainwright’s knowledge of their power proved to be a powerful weapon.

We know that MCV contacted Eurogamer about the article and, while they claim that they never threatened Eurogamer with legal action, Bramwell refused to discuss what was said during those conversations. This is the impact of English libel accusations: There is an instant chilling effect of what people are comfortable saying, regardless of the truth. Wainwright knew that she could pay a lawyer to get criticisms of her removed from the story, and her attempts were successful. It’s damning that in the decade or so I’ve written about games I’m aware of only one case of a publisher using legal threats to get a story edited, and now a reporter is abusing the legal systems to quiet criticism of their actions.

That’s not how the press should work, and Wainwright has learned the hard way that the Internet hates it when content is removed or hidden. Her Twitter account is still locked down, references to her work with Square Enix have been removed from her Journalisted account, and screenshots of past tweets indicate that she stated that she never reviewed Square Enix games, a claim that only a cursory Google search proved wrong. This is a case of someone going out of their way to destroy their own writing career by trying to hide what was, at the time, a very innocuous bit of criticism.

“The saddest thing for me is that Rab won’t be writing Lost Humanity any more, because I thought it was a fantastic column that shone a light on dark corners of gaming,” Bramwell said. “I’d encourage any of your readers who didn’t know about it previously to check out the rest of them.”

Why isn’t this story being reported?

This story brings up many uncomfortable questions about the connections the gaming press has to the industry it’s supposed to cover, and it’s unsurprising so few outlets have chosen to report on what’s going on.

“I don’t think it’s a pretty important story. I think it’s the same tired nonsense about games journalism that some folks love to carry on endlessly about,” Kotaku editor in chief Stephen Totilo wrote in a comment on his site after being criticized for not reporting on the issue.

“If we had more clear facts about whether one journalism outlet or journalist really threatened to sue another and if that other outlet buckled under that needlessly, then maybe we’d have a small story. But that would take reporting to find out, and I just don’t care enough about the latest supposed media scandal to ask my reporters to look into it.” His comments were met with derision on the NeoGAF thread on the topic, where further discussion on the story took place.

Totilo is right that it would take reporting to find out what happened in this case, but that reporting is worth doing, and it has to be made clear that using the legal system as a club to stifle both criticism and open communication about what the game press is doing and why is unacceptable, whether it’s by a reporter or a publisher. This is why there is a such a problem of trust between readers and the gaming press: too many of us dismiss this sort of story as trivial while we line up to sit next to the proverbial Doritos. MCV as a publication has a history of mixing marketing and reporting: their US reporter also works as a content developer for Arcen games, where he heads up marketing and PR.

I’ve e-mailed MCV and Wainwright herself for comment, and neither have responded at the time of publication. This story isn’t going away, and it’s dangerous to ignore it. Contrary to what some may think, scrubbing the evidence of supposed wrongdoing from the Internet and hoping people forget isn’t a valid strategy, and a reporter seemingly trying to stifle the press with opportunistic legal threats isn’t just wrong, it’s a perversion of what we should stand for.

We need to be more willing to report on the mingling of marketing and reporting in the video game industry, not less. There needs to be more instances of disclosure, not fewer. The common industry practice of sticking our heads in the sand and dismissing these stories as “drama” won’t work anymore. Lauren Wainwright is finding that out, to her detriment.